A Strange Word
What five-letter word becomes shorter when you add two letters to it? Seemingly contradictory, the answer is the word ... These types of riddles often include the solution within the question itself.
How can you add two to eleven and get one as the correct answer? This riddle appears to be mathematically impossible, since 11+2 cannot equal 1. However, the context matters. Adding two ... which is the correct answer.
What makes more as you take them? There can be multiple correct answers to this one, as long as the object fulfils the condition that it increases the more we take it. ... are both examples of this.
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Patrick King is an internationally bestselling author and social skills coach. emotional and social intelligence. Learn more or get a free mini-book on conversation tactics at https://bit.ly/pkconsulting
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Are you ready to try again with a related riddle? As you read through the next riddle, try to remember to see only what is strictly in front of you, and don’t take any of your assumptions too seriously!
The riddle goes like this: “What five-letter word becomes shorter when you add two letters to it?”
Let’s pause and take it slowly. What do we see in the riddle above? It looks at first to be a contradiction. Everything that we know about the way that words and spelling works is that if you add letters to a word, it becomes longer. In fact, adding anything to anything else and winding up with less is simply something that’s not arithmetically sound or logical, no matter how you cut it.
So, what does this tell us? It’s a clue that our assumptions above are not going to work for us with this riddle. There is something about the idea “adding to a thing makes it longer, not shorter” that holds the key to solving this riddle.
Inspired by what we’ve learned from the previous riddles, let’s try to examine our assumptions a little more closely. We are assuming this riddle wants us to think of a special word that magically becomes shorter when two letters are added. And yet we know this is logically impossible. What we need to do, perhaps, is abandon this line of thinking altogether, and ask: in what other ways can adding letters to a word make it shorter? We want to think not of a special word, but a special way in which to add letters to a word, i.e. there’s no point trying to think of individual words—there are none.
Here’s a clue: the riddle you just read above is itself made of words.
Have you spotted the trick yet?
If you need another clue: think about the two different ways in which a thing can “become shorter,” bearing in mind that a word and the idea of a word are two different things.
The answer is simple: the word is short. When you add two letters to it, it becomes shorter.
If you solved the puzzle, well done! If not, can you think of why the answer eluded you?
The trick lies in understanding that the riddle is pointing directly to the word in the riddle itself. A similar riddle is, “What makes you young? The letters ‘ng.’” What we see here is a game with referee and referent, with a thing and the symbol we put on a thing to help us understand it. As readers, we assume that the words in the riddle are pointing elsewhere, even forgetting that we are using words at all. We can only solve it by changing perspective and considering the very conceptual tools that the riddle employs.
A real-life equivalent is wondering for ages why everyone tested in a hospital has the same rare disease, before understanding the reason why: the test is faulty. We can all too easily forget that sometimes the problem we face is not actually embedded in reality itself, but in the signs, symbols, and conceptual tools we use to talk about that reality. In the same way that we can ask what assumptions we are using, we can also ask what tools we’re using—remembering that words are the most ubiquitous and invisible tools of all.
A Strange Sum
Now that you’ve had a chance to puzzle through the previous riddle, the following one should be a little easier to solve. In the previous problem, it was words that stumped us; in this one, it’s going to be numbers.
The riddle goes like this: “How can you add two to eleven and get one as the correct answer?”
What tools have we learned from previous riddles that could help us work through this one?
We could question our assumptions and look closely at the way we are assuming the puzzle ought to be solved. Or we could consider that what seems impossible at first is possible, so long as we completely shift our frame of understanding.
Just as it was in the puzzle above, it is arithmetically incorrect to say 11 + 2 = 1. However, the riddle tells us that one is in fact the correct answer. This tells us that these numbers are not in the ordinary realm of what we’re thinking of. A sum like 11 + 2 is purely abstract—they’re just numbers. But can we imagine a real-world example where the abstract laws of math don’t hold in this way?
The “Strange Word” riddle taught us to look at how we’re using symbols, so let’s do that here: if we can’t solve this riddle using ordinary numbers and ordinary arithmetic, what other ways can we use instead? Try to think of all the ways we use numbers in real life. Do any of them display this strange behavior?
If you still haven’t gotten the answer, here it is: by adding two hours to 11 o’clock, you get 1 o’clock.
So, we have used numbers not as digits but almost as tags on a twelve-hour clock. Usually, thirteen follows twelve, but under special twelve-hour clock rules, it’s perfectly correct to progress to one from twelve. It is true that one never follows twelve in an arithmetic sense, but the puzzle is asking us to imagine a different case entirely. We only need to understand that numbers can act in different ways, sometimes as digits, sometimes as ranks, and sometimes referring to ideas or quantities that have their own laws and rules.
Taking and Making
See if you can use your ability to shift perspectives in the following riddle. You’ll recognize the ways it’s similar to the previous riddles.
It goes like this: “What makes more as you take them?”
We already know that the answer to this riddle with resolve any apparent contradiction we see on first hearing it. We see these words that seem to disagree with one another: make and take seem to be opposites. Just as with the “shorter” riddle and the clock riddle above, we can see that to solve this, we will have to question and even undo our ordinary understanding of what it means to make and to take something.
Can we think of something that increases the more we take it?
As you can probably guess, the clue is in the word “take” and how we use it. Can you think of ways to take something that doesn’t decrease, but increase?
Perhaps you’ve thought of photographs—the more you take, the more photographs there are (a gain). We also speak of “taking action” even though we use take here in a different sense, i.e. we mean undertake or do rather than take away.
The answer is this: footsteps. The more footsteps you take, the more footsteps there are.
For this riddle, however, you may have come up with plenty of other creative solutions that are not strictly incorrect. You might have imagined a water well—the more you take, the more water appears. You could have also gone a bit more abstract; for example, the more clutter you remove from a house, the more space you have inside. As we did in the “Say My Name” riddle, we simply need to reframe empty space as a thing in the same way as we do clutter.
This puzzle can be solved merely by understanding that some words can have multiple meanings. Even though we see a contradiction at first, it vanishes when we consider alternative meanings for the same word.