Can word games help you become a better writer?

Most writers and wordsmiths tend to be fond of the likes of crosswords, anagrams and word puzzles, but does this just come down to a love of wordplay, or is it possible that their interest in one is aiding their ability in another?

Perhaps the most famous of all word games is Scrabble, and with today being National Scrabble Day, it’s a great opportunity to look at a 79-year-old game in which two or more players basically try to form a crossword puzzle between them, using bonus squares and high-scoring letters to rack up as high a score as possible.

Of course, the key to being a good Scrabble player is to know a lot of words, but does that mean that novelists, journalists and orators should be among the best players?

Take a look at the final board from the 2013 British Scrabble Championship. Your eyes might immediately be drawn to words like BANDURA (a Ukrainian music instrument) and CONIINES (colourless liquid alkaloids), but what’s noticeable on closer inspection is the number of very short words clustered in there. Some of them you will be very familiar with, like OF and TA, but what about FY (an exclamation of disapproval), UN (a dialectal form of ‘one) and NY (a variant of ‘nigh’)? Even knowing what they mean, are you likely to slip them into a conversation any time soon?

Many Scrabble players are completely unaware, and often even disinterested, in what the words they play mean. It can even be frowned upon to ask another player what a word means, because it could be seen that you’re trying to find out whether it has any ‘hooks’, or letters that can be added onto the beginning or end of it. For example, if you’re told that a ZO is a breed of cattle, you can probably hazard a guess that it’s possible to have more than one of them, making ZOS a valid word. If you thought it might be a colour or some other adjective, you would be less sure.

In 2015, bearded New Zealander Nigel Richards won the French Scrabble Championship, and what’s truly remarkable about that is that he can’t string a sentence together in French. He just has a phenomenal ability to memorise words. As this video shows, for someone who knows so many words, Richards doesn’t tend to say too many of them!

In 2003 and 2009, the World Scrabble Championship was won by Thai players who spoke minimal English. British player Mark Nyman once told an anecdote that he played a Thai player who was happy to accept the word XYLYL (a group of atoms), but later in the same game challenged the word LEGEND. This shows how many players simply learn words rather than their meaning and usage.

There are people who argue that at the very top level, Scrabble is more a game of mathematics than literacy. It’s about probability, strategy and forming high-scoring valid chains of letters out of the often unfavourable tiles you pick out of the bag. All of this means that a digital course like our Business Blogging for Beginners Diploma Course is much more likely to give your writing a boost than playing Scrabble.

However, there’s no doubt that Scrabble can help you learn new words. They just tend to be vowel-heavy ones like EUOI (a Bacchic cry) and URAEI (ancient Egyptian serpents), consonant clusters like TWP (Welsh for ‘stupid’) and GRRRL (a fan of feminist punk rock), or words like QI (Chinese life force) or QOPH (a Hebrew letter) that use the Q without the U.

Whether they can help us in writing is another matter, but the Association of British Scrabble Players website does put together short stories to help players remember newly introduced words. By seeing these words, we’re likely to subconsciously learn about etymology, word origin, spelling conventions and slang terms, all of which can make us better wordsmiths, even if you’re unlikely to have to write about a WAQF (Islamic law endowment) or XEBEC (Mediterranean sea vessel) in the immediate future.

Categories: Writing

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