Sunday, November 23, 2014

Letter Count Inflation (LCI)

When constructing a puzzle, I sometimes see a word that will fit beautifully with most of the letters of the crossing words in that section of the grid, except for one problem.  It has fewer letters than the number of squares in that position.  There are some options that can help me resolve the issue, i.e., increase the letter count of the base word* (usually the word in its first alphabetical appearance in the dictionary) to match the number of squares I'm trying to fill.

I call  these devices Letter Count Inflation, partly because that's what's going on---the number of letters in a base word or phrase is being boosted---and partly because it makes for a spiffy initialism, LCI.  In the vast majority of cases the LCI is for expediency or convenience.  It's gratuitous.  It's there only because it ups the letter count and makes it easier to fill the grid, not because it adds value or interest to the puzzle.

One of the most frequently encountered methods to inflate the letter count is to take a base word, typically a noun or verb, and add an S, an ES, or drop a Y and add IES.  The resulting longer word is what I call a Plural Of Convenience, or POC, and I have posted about POCs elsewhere on this blog.

Another LCI option is to take a base word that is a verb and change it into a noun.  Consider the verb ASPIRE.  By adding an R, I can take that six-letter word and make it fit a seven-letter slot.  An additional letter-count boost to eight can be had by adding on a POC.   We would go from ASPIRE to ASPIRER to ASPIRERS.  A clue starting out along the lines of "One who...", or "Those who..." is often a tell-tale sign that a noun-to-verb LCI has gone down.

There are two more ways verbs can be used for LCIs.   The first is shifting the tense, usually from the present to the past, and the second is shifting from the base form of the verb to a gerund/present participle.  The typical tense shift will amp up the letter-count by two, e.g., CAMP to CAMPED (a 50% letter-count increase), while going to the gerund can net a three-letter boost, e.g., CAMP to CAMPING (a 75% letter-count increase).

Adjectives can provide a rich lode for mining LCIs, as when one takes on an adverb's clothing and gets a two-letter uptick, for example, from APT to APTLY.  For some advanced LCI, you can combine the verb-to-gerund and the adjective-to-adverb ploys to give some amazing letter-count boosting.  Consider the base word FIT.  An LCI to FITTING gives a 133% letter-count increase, while doubling up on LCIs to FITTINGLY gives a whopping 200% letter-count and subsequent grid fill increase.  Is there an equivalent 200% increase in value/meaning/interest?  Not for me, not even close.

Another LCI that I see regularly is shifting to the comparative or superlative form of an adjective. This can net a two-, three-, or even four- or more letter bump.   A good example would be FAR, FARTHER/FURTHER, FARTHEST/FURTHEST , with the superlative giving a 166% grid-space-filling increase.  The champion in this department, methinks, would be FITTINGEST, coming in with a 233% increase in grid-filling power.   

The common thread for all LCI's is increasing the amount of grid space that gets filled without adding a commensurate amount of value or interest to the puzzle.  LCI's just make it easier to fill the grid.   They make the "artful arrangement of words crossing one another" less artful.

I think LCI's are like abbreviations, partial phrases, foreign words, random Roman numerals, crosswordese, and the like.  Any of these used judiciously to facilitate filling the grid of an otherwise excellent puzzle would be unremarkable and above reproach.   It's when they are used excessively that, for me, they become intrusive and degrade the overall quality and integrity of the puzzle, and diminish my enjoyment of the solving experience.

Be on the lookout for LCIs in a puzzle near you.

*By base or core word I mean the form of the word that cannot be reduced further without losing the meaning of the word. Remove any of its letters and it becomes meaningless or its meaning is completely changed, or it loses its standing as a word and becomes, for example, an abbreviation.








2 comments:

  1. Very interesting. POC and LCM candidates can be detected algorithmically and the list culled by a human. Can you think of other things that an algorithm can help detect?

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    1. Hi r.alph. Most LCM involves adding letters to the end of a base or core word to increase its grid filling power, but adding letters to the front end does happen, for the same reason. Two that come to mind are 1) gratuitously throwing in an article, usually "the", but also "a", "an", etc., and, 2) putting a gratuitous, and often awkward, "re" at the beginning of a verb. I don't know if an algorithm would work for that.

      Another candidate might be helper, or cheater squares, black squares that don't change the number of words in the grid but, by taking up additional white squares, make it easier to fill the grid.

      Another possibility would be to give each grid an LCM score, maybe in the form of a percentage, calculated by comparing the number of white squares that are occupied by base or core words with the number that are occupied by add-on letters that are there for the convenience of filling higher letter-count slots.



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