Verbal arithmetic

Verbal arithmetic

Verbal arithmetic, also known as alphametics, cryptarithmetic, crypt-arithmetic, cryptarithm or word addition, is a type of mathematical game consisting of a mathematical equation among unknown numbers, whose digits are represented by letters. The goal is to identify the value of each letter. The name can be extended to puzzles that use non-alphabetic symbols instead of letters.

The equation is typically a basic operation of arithmetic, such as addition, multiplication, or division. The classic example, published in the July 1924 issue of Strand Magazine by Henry Dudeney,[1] is:

     &   & \text{S} & \text{E} & \text{N} & \text{D} \\
   + &   & \text{M} & \text{O} & \text{R} & \text{E} \\
   = & \text{M} & \text{O} & \text{N} & \text{E} & \text{Y} \\

The solution to this puzzle is O = 0, M = 1, Y = 2, E = 5, N = 6, D = 7, R = 8, and S = 9.

Traditionally, each letter should represent a different digit, and (as in ordinary arithmetic notation) the leading digit of a multi-digit number must not be zero. A good puzzle should have a unique solution, and the letters should make up a cute phrase (as in the example above).

Verbal arithmetic can be useful as a motivation and source of exercises in the teaching of algebra.



Verbal arithmetic puzzles are quite old and their inventor is not known. An example in The American Agriculturist[2] of 1864 disproves the popular notion that it was invented by Sam Loyd. The name crypt-arithmetic was coined by puzzlist Minos (pseudonym of Maurice Vatriquant) in the May 1931 issue of Sphinx, a Belgian magazine of recreational mathematics. In the 1955, J. A. H. Hunter introduced the word "alphametic" to designate cryptarithms, such as Dudeney's, whose letters form meaningful words or phrases.[3]’’”

Solving cryptarithms

Solving a cryptarithm by hand usually involves a mix of deductions and exhaustive tests of possibilities. For instance, the following sequence of deductions solves Dudeney's SEND + MORE = MONEY puzzle above (columns are numbered from right to left):

     &   & \text{S} & \text{E} & \text{N} & \text{D} \\
   + &   & \text{M} & \text{O} & \text{R} & \text{E} \\
   = & \text{M} & \text{O} & \text{N} & \text{E} & \text{Y} \\

  1. From column 5, M = 1 since it is the only carry-over possible from the sum of two single digit numbers in column 4.
  2. To produce a carry from column 4 to column 5, S + M is at least 9, so S is 8 or 9, so S + M is 9 or 10, and so O is 0 or 1. But M = 1, so O = 0.
  3. If there were a carry from column 3 to column 4 then E = 9 and so N = 0. But O = 0, so there is no carry, and S = 9.
  4. If there were no carry from column 2 to column 3 then E = N, which is impossible. Therefore there is a carry and N = E + 1.
  5. If there were no carry from column 1 to column 2, then ( N + R ) mod 10 = E, and N = E + 1, so E + 1 + R = E mod 10, so R = 9. But S = 9, so there must be a carry from column 1 to column 2 and R = 8.
  6. To produce a carry from column 1 to column 2, we must have D + E = 10 + Y. As Y cannot be 0 or 1, D + E is at least 12. As D is at most 7, then E is at least 5. Also, N is at most 7, and N = E + 1. So E is 5 or 6.
  7. If E were 6 then to make D + E at least 12, D would have to be 7. But N = E + 1, so N would also be 7, which is impossible. Therefore E = 5 and N = 6.
  8. To make D + E at least 12 we must have D = 7, and so Y = 2.

The use of modular arithmetic often helps. For example, use of mod-10 arithmetic allows the columns of an addition problem to be treated as simultaneous equations, while the use of mod-2 arithmetic allows inferences based on the parity of the variables.

In computer science, cryptarithms provide good examples to illustrate the brute force method, and algorithms that generate all permutations of m choices from n possibilities. For example, the Dudeney puzzle above can be solved by testing all assignments of eight values among the digits 0 to 9 to the eight letters S,E,N,D,M,O,R,Y, giving 1,814,400 possibilities. They provide also good examples for backtracking paradigm of algorithm design.

Other information

When generalized to arbitrary bases, the problem of determining if a cryptarithm has a solution is NP-complete.[4] (The generalization is necessary for the hardness result because in base 10, there are only 10! possible assignments of digits to letters, and these can be checked against the puzzle in linear time.)

Alphametics can be combined with other number puzzles such as Sudoku and Kakuro to create cryptic Sudoku and Kakuro.

See also


  1. ^ H. E. Dudeney, in Strand Magazine vol. 68 (July 1924), pp. 97 and 214.
  2. ^ American Agriculturist 23 (12): pp. 349. December 1864 
  3. ^ J. A. H. Hunter, in the Toronto Globe and Mail (27 October 1955), p. 27.
  4. ^ David Eppstein (1987). "On the NP-completeness of cryptarithms". SIGACT News 18 (3): 38–40. doi:10.1145/24658.24662. 
  • Martin Gardner, Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery. Dover (1956)
  • Journal of Recreational Mathematics, has a regular alphametics column.
  • Jack van der Elsen, Alphametics. Maastricht (1998)
  • Kahan S., Have some sums to solve: The complete alphametics book, Baywood Publishing, (1978)
  • Yang X. S., Cryptic Kakuro and Cross Sums Sudoku, Exposure Publishing, (2006)
  • Brooke M. One Hundred & Fifty Puzzles in Crypt-Arithmetic. New York: Dover, (1963)

External links

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