Sporcle Word Ladders: Best Practices

what is a word ladder

What is a Word Ladder anyway?

The goal in writing this post is to get people to appreciate the work and artistry that go into creating good word ladders, and help people to start making their own since mini word ladders are now part of the Sporcle Daily Dose. Hopefully, this will inspire Sporclers to try and make little ladders of their own.

History of Word Ladders

Word ladders were first popularized by Lewis Carroll but he had two ways of doing them. You could change exactly one letter in the word, OR you could add/subtract a letter from the word to make a new one. So in his word ladder, the lengths changed all the time. That’s fine do to, but he always indicated what type of process was happening. The sporcle user Caramba has made a solid example of the classic Lewis Carroll ladder, where he also added anagramming the letters.

There have also been puzzles for a long time that asked you to use common words to link two words together in the shortest path.  That’s hard to do without clues, and often there are multiple possible paths. However, Sporcle user Flick did an excellent job of making a Sporcle version of the shortest path ladders.

Word Ladder “Rules” and “Guidelines”

A) Word ladders can be done for 4-letter and 5-letter words. 6-letter words can be done for a small sequence, but not for long, just due to the nature of words. Also, if you come up with something good, you might be able to make a 3-letter version, but it also starts to get a little too easy with really short words.

B) In a Word Ladder, exactly one letter changes from word to word. If more than one letter changes, it really starts to be hard to go from step to step.

C) In a Word Ladder, the position that changes must be different each time.

  • Rationale:  LOVE -> ??? -> ROVE
  • So, let’s say you have three clues:: Amor in English, American Poet Laureate Rita, and Bush Politico Karl.
  • Since LOVE and ROVE only differ by one letter, there are 24 possible letters that can be ?OVE and if you don’t know who Rita Dove is, you have a lot of annoying guesswork. So, that’s why we avoid changing the same position twice in a row. Then you only have 2 possibilities to try.
  • For example, LOVE -> ROVE -> ROTE
  • So now, if you don’t know who Karl Rove is, but you have LOVE and ROTE, you know the two possibilities that go in the middle are ROVE or LOTE.

D) To make a good and exciting word ladder, inflected forms should be avoided at all costs, unless a theme traps you but try to get out of them fast. Inflected forms of words are things like plurals, participles, and past tenses.

  • Example: HOGS-> DOGS -> DIGS -> PIGS
  • Is a VERY boring word ladder. It looks like it is really 4-letter words but in actuality it is a bunch of plural 3-letter words. This happens a LOT if you try to make 5-letter ladders because they are SO hard to make in the first place.

E) Etymology.  It is bad form to put two words next to each other that come from the same word, since that’s really cheating and inelegant. For example: BORN ->BORE or LIFE -> LIVE

  • LIFE -> LIVE is hard to fix but you could clue LIFE as the board game, and LIVE as the band. Additionally, with BORN -> BORE you have a way out because there are other meanings that are not related. BORN can mean “having given birth to” or it can be “Last name of Physicist Max”

F) Word ladders alone are just fun. You can see that the first bunches of word ladders on Sporcle were just strings of interesting but unrelated, and those are fun, but it is a lot cooler if they have themes. There are several ways to make themed word ladders:

  1. Have the beginning and ending words be related to each other in some way (opposites, part of a phrase, part of a set, etc.)
  2. Have all (or most of) the clues in the ladder be related to a topic (math, music, Super Mario Brothers, etc.)
  3. Have the ladder contain a bunch of related words or a complete list (all the 4-letter countries, Michael Jackson hits, etc).

G) Don’t use a word again in the ladder.  However, there is a corollary to this if you want to start and end back on the same word.  Also, if your ladder is unthemed, you want to try to make sure that the ladder cannot be “jumped” meaning that you could actually go from the 3rd word to the 17th word, and cut out a big chunk. This is actually useful though, to ramble around and make a really short ladder a little bit longer.

  • For example, WORK -> PORK -> PORE -> WORE.  In that case, you could have just gone from WORK -> WORE in one step.

H) Try to have the letter patterns vary, as that makes the ladder more interesting. Most 4-letter words are CVCV (consonant vowel consonant vowel). So trying to shift the patterns around makes for a lot more interesting words.  There is a great word ladder that goes from OHIO to IOWA, and it isn’t easy to move the vowel patterns around like that.

I) Now, having an interesting but less common word in a ladder is cool. People learn new things. However, if you have a lot of new/obscure words in a row or near each other, it makes that part of the ladder almost unsolvable, so watch out for that.   Also, if you have hard words at the beginning or ends of ladders, there is a lot less help to getting that answer, so avoid that unless it is part of a theme or just an awesome word.

J) How much time does a ladder need? A good rule of thumb is that for every 10 words in a ladder, Sporclers will want a minute. For the Daily Dose, ladders that are 1-3 minutes (and on the shorter side of that) are ideal if you’re trying to get published.

K) Formatting the ladder is a good thing to do to make people happy when playing it, but that can always be fixed after.  If there are fewer than 25 “rungs/words” in the ladder, on the style page, set “Number of columns” to 1. Also, make sure the column widths are done so that the clue gets most of the space, 70/30%, for example.  Try to make the font size at least 9 point, because that is the most readable.

L) Now, there are no set rules, as these are just guidelines to make them the most fun to solve, but sometimes the themes are very constraining, and you might have to ‘bend the rules.’ Finding words for a ladder can be hard.  Connecting to HATE is easy; connecting to ONIX is hard. Most online dictionaries will allow you to use wildcard searches, or this site is just da bomb for making ladders, but it only contains non-proper nouns.

M) When writing your clues, make sure they are parallel.  Meaning if you’re cluing a verb, define it as a verb, if you’re cluing a plural, define it as a plural, etc. Use the internet to help you find good and correct definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is awesome for this.

LEAF: Good clue “Place where photosynthesis takes place.” Bad clue: “Things found on trees” [Singular versus plural]

HATED: Good clue: “Despised.” Bad clue: “Does not like” [Tense doesn’t match]

N) Now you’re ready to start, and you can search all the word ladders that have already been made so that you can make sure you’re not repeating a theme, or reconnecting the same two words again.

If anyone makes a ladder and wants feedback, or is stuck and needs help, feel free to email me at SproutCMSporcle AT gmail dot com and I’ll help out.




  1. SproutCM: Can I suggest a couple of other excellent resources for word ladders and clues?

    http://www.onelook.com/ – So you’re stuck on a word like TRAIN and want to see where you can go? Start here, enter ?RAIN or T?AIN or TR?IN or TRA?N or TRAI? and go to the list of common words.

    http://www.xwordinfo.com/Word.aspx – Now you’ve got your words but are trying to come up with clues. You want a better clue for “COLD” than “Opposite of hot”? Well, for virtually any word you can dream of, this site shows how it’s been clued in every New York Times crossword puzzle since 1999. So for “COLD” you could use the more creative clues “Siberian”, “Common ailment” or “Like many a detective’s trail”. Preferably, don’t directly steal from the site, but see how it can inspire you to better clues.

  2. @Rockgolf–oh, man, THANKS!!! for that onelook site. I’ve been thinking of a Literature-themed ladder, and changing from first to last name can be difficult! BIG THANK YOU!!

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