From ‘Aa’ to ‘Za:’ Memorize every two-letter Scrabble word with these 5 tips from the game’s experts

Can you spot the high-scoring two-letter words? (John Volk/MEDILL)

By John Volk

Medill Reports

Does your Scrabble rack leave you feeling like Old MacDonald? Don’t worry — there’s so much you can do with E-I-E-I-O.

The game accepts 107 two-letter words, and 67 of them contain E, I or O. Learn all 107 and prepare to win your next family game night. These shorties unlock new ways to play multiple words at a time, double-dip on high-scoring words, exploit point-boosting squares and challenge your opponent’s “phonies” off the board.

“It is crucial to the point where I won’t play anyone who doesn’t have them memorized,” said Doug Shaw, a math professor at the University of Northern Iowa who published a guide on memorizing the two-letter Scrabble words. “If I can use them and you can’t, you really don’t stand a chance.”

With Scrabble turning 75 this year, here are the five best tips to memorize all 107 two-letter words and take your game to the next level.

1. You already know a third of them

You’re already ahead of the game. In everyday conversation, the average English speaker uses about 35 of the two-letter words, like “as,” “in” and “so,” Shaw estimates.

Doug Shaw's common two-letter Scrabble words
Doug Shaw’s common two-letter words in bold. (John Volk/MEDILL)

Cross those off your list and you only need to memorize a more manageable 72.

2. Lock down the heavy-hitters

If you can only memorize a few, make them count.

John Chew, the chief executive officer of the North American Scrabble Players Association, recommends starting with all the J, Q, X and Z words: ax, ex, jo, ox, qi, xi, xu and za.

“The easiest thing you can do to improve your skill as a beginning player is not even to learn all of the two-letter words, but just learn the two-letter words with the power tiles in them,” Chew said. “Often there’s an opportunity to play just that word on its own, with the power tile on a bonus square, to give you either 25, 31 points or something like that, and that in a beginning game can make the difference between winning and losing.”

Take that concept to the next level by using your two-letter word knowledge in two directions. For example, if you find a triple letter score next to an I, place a Q on it and another I next to the Q to spell “qi” for a baseline of 62 points. “That’s going to swing most games in your favor,” Chew said.

3. Break it into familiar groups

After you’ve eliminated the common words from the big 107, Shaw suggests grouping the remainder in as many ways as you can.

“I looked at them, and I said, ‘OK, what’s the biggest group I can take out now?'” Shaw said. “I kept looking at what was left and finding a category I could take out, so I didn’t wind up saying, ‘The rest are miscellaneous.'”

He formed groups like Chew’s power tiles, musical notes, letter names, interjections, Greek letters, Hebrew letters and slang.

Grouped two-letter Scrabble words
Grouped two-letter Scrabble words. (John Volk/MEDILL)

Then you only need to memorize 17 weird words in the miscellaneous category.

Only 17 miscellaneous words remain
Only 17 miscellaneous words remain. (John Volk/MEDILL)

4. Quiz, quiz, quiz

Whether you break it up or go straight through the 107, practice is key.

“Whenever you’re in a boring meeting or just doing something dull, write them out because there aren’t that many,” Shaw said. “Start with ‘aa’ and ‘ab’ and go all the way through ‘za.'”

Shaw suggests printing out a small copy of the list to always keep on hand.

A partner can help, said Cooper Komatsu, a top-10 Scrabble player in Illinois and two-time National Adult Spelling Bee champion. When he first learned the two-letter words at 5 years old, he would list them off to his mom in order, and she would check them off down a list, letting him know if he missed any.

5. Set up your mental journey

The best memorization comes when you:

  • Turn it into an easy-to-picture mental image
  • Engage all your senses in that image
  • Make it weird

These are the three core principles Chester Santos, known as “The International Man of Memory,” used to win the 2008 USA Memory Championship, an annual tournament-style competition where contestants engage in head-to-head memorization challenges.

When you want to remember a long list of information, such as the two-letter Scrabble words, Santos suggests using the “journey method,” a memorization style that involves mentally placing the visuals into familiar locations. Santos recalls the first 10 two-letter words in an instant by placing them into his apartment.

“For ‘aa,’ I open up my front door, and I’m seeing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,” Santos said. “There are a bunch of people that are sitting in a circle talking about themselves and their past weeks, so I’m just visualizing that, and that reminds me ‘aa’ is the first one.”

In his mind, he goes inside the apartment next and sees a bodybuilder by the door to remember the second word is “ab.” From there, he goes to the kitchen and sees a giant billboard on his cupboard for “ad.” And so on until you reach “za,” word 107.

John Volk is a magazine specialization reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @jk_volk.