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Published on October 02, 2020

Solving Word Hunt in Python: The Trie

Word Hunt is a popular game where you’re given a list of letters and told to find as many words as possible from those letters. In variations of the game, you can reuse the letters as many times as possible (Word Hunt) or use them only once (Word Scrambles). You get more points for longer words and the maximum points for using all the letters.

This kind of game is great for computers to solve, and can highlight a pretty useful data structure, the Trie.

Boy in front of letters

Solution Strategy

Let’s say we have the word “MAINE”.

The first thing to do is decide how we’ll tackle the problem. If the problem were a Scramble, we could try making all possible combinations of letters and seeing if those were words. That could be a decent solution for a Scramble, but it doesn’t help us for a Word Hunt because letters can be reused. So while you might find the word “name”, you would never find the word “nine”.

We obviously can’t try every possible combination of letters because we don’t know how many times a letter might repeat.

We’re reduced to searching a dictionary of words to see if the word uses only the letters we have in our input. With a big dictionary, that could take a very long time, and it would have to be repeated every time you changed the word!

Instead, we need a way to search a dictionary very quickly to tell us if a word is there.

This is where a predictive text structure, the Trie, comes in.

What is a Trie

A Trie is a tree data structure where instead of the node storing a value associated with the key, the node is associated with the key itself. Values in the node could be used to assign rankings to certain leaves or probabilities based on numbers of traversals.

Trie example

Example Trie from the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trie

The above example of a Trie was generated with the keys “A”, “to”, “tea”, “ted”, “ten”, “i”, “in”, and “inn”. Once a Trie structure like this is generated, it is an O(n) operation to see if any word is in the Trie. If I’m searching for “ted”, I find “t” in O(1), then “e” from the “t” node in O(1), and then “d” from the “te” node in O(1).

This makes a very fast solution to the question “is this jumble of letters in the dictionary”. All we have to do first is first build the dictionary.

In Python, that step is easy. What this looks like is a dictionary at each node. So we need to start with an empty dictionary, then for every word in the dictionary, go letter by letter and check that the next letter is in our Trie structure and if not, add it in!

Now, this sounds pretty expensive, and it is in some ways, but it only has to be done once. After the Trie is built, you can continue to use it with no extra overhead.

Building the Trie

We need to start with a list of all possible words (there are many to be found online), and then our dictionary loading function might start something like this:

Now we need a function that will add a word to the Trie. We need to run through the Trie and check at every letter whether we need to add our new key or not. Because we’re indexing through the Python dictionary by keys, though, we don’t even need to store a value at each node. It’s a new dictionary that can have its own keys.

Here’s a quick idea. We take in the current Trie we’re pointed at (note that any node in the Trie is itself a Trie in this case!), the word, and the index of the letter of the word we’re looking at.

If the index is more than the length of the word, we’re done! If not, we check if the letter is already in this Trie. If the letter isn’t in this Trie’s lowest layer, we add a new dictionary at this level using that letter as the key. Then, we pass the dictionary (trie) of our letter, the word, and the next index recursively back into this function.

Using these two functions, we’d build the Trie shown above. But we have a problem.

How do we tell that we found a word rather than the first part of a real word? In the Trie example above, we want “in” to return true like “inn” would, but we don’t want “te” to return that it’s a word in the dictionary.

To do this, we do need to store a value at our nodes when we have a complete word. Let’s revisit our addWordToTrie function and set the key “leaf” to True if this node represents a complete word.

Now, any time we finish a word, we either set the current dictionary node’s “leaf” value to True, or we add a new node with a “leaf” value of False.

We should also initialize “trie” in our loading function with the same {‘leaf’:False} so we don’t later return an empty string as a valid word.

That’s it! We’ve built our Trie structure and it’s time to use it.

Testing Words

Here’s a method to try: Start with an empty list. For every letter in our word, we’ll check our Trie and see if it’s in the Trie. If so, get the sub-trie and start over (so we can check duplicate letters!). Keep walking until we either find a leaf or we don’t find any letters in the word that are in the next sub-trie. If we found a leaf, add that word to the list. If there aren’t any more sub-tries, we break and go on to the next letter.

Note here that we’re building up a current word to pass to our list, but we’re also using recursion and extending our list with whatever we find in subsequent calls with those new words.

Some of you may have already spotted the problem with this. What if we have repeated letters? For example, if our word is “TEEN” and we were at the node “TE”, we’d check for “t” in our sub-trie, which is fine, then we’d check for “e” in our sub-trie and find “tee” is a word. We’d add “tee” to our list. But the next letter in the word is “e” again, so we’d once again find “tee”. There’s a couple ways to solve this, but one of the easier ways is to use a set instead of a list.

Now we’ll guarantee uniqueness in our list no matter how many times we find the same word. We could also make sure to eliminate duplicate letters in our incoming word and potentially save some processing time.

So that’s it! Those three functions find us all the words in the dictionary that can be made from the letters we pass in. Let’s wrap all that in a main function that takes some input and we’re done.

Since this isn’t a word scramble, we find a lot more words. Using our example of “MAINE” from above and a dictionary I found with about 370,000 words, the program finds 208 words. That’s why I added a minimum word length input as well. Limiting to words of length 7 or more, we get this:

Loading dictionary...


What letters should we use: maine

What is the minimum word length: 7












11 words found.

Loading the dictionary takes about half a second, and finding the words after that takes no noticeable time at all.

It’s inefficient to recreate this Trie each time for a single word, so it would be better to re-use it, either by saving the structure or by looping to try multiple word hunts at the same time.

Hopefully this gave you a quick dive into using a Trie to solve word problems. Tries are a great structure to use when you need any kind of autocomplete. Text messaging, searches, even directions can use a Trie build from data in the system to help predict what a user wants to input next. As we’ve seen here, they’re also a great structure to use to search a large number of existing paths, in this case, the path being valid words.

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