Solving Cryptic Crosswords
Cryptic crosswords can seem dauntingly nonsensical at first glance. But the fundamental principles of cryptic clueing are actually quite simple.
Every cryptic clue can be read as a (somewhat) sensible phrase or sentence. In reality, however, it has two separate parts. One is a definition, like those in a standard crossword puzzle. The other part uses some form of wordplay to steer you to the intended answer. It is called the wordplay, the subsidiary indication, or simply the subsidiary. These two parts provide independent indications of the same answer. Either part may come first in the clue. Sometimes a word or two, suggesting how the two parts work together, may come in between; more often, the definition and wordplay will simply occur side by side. In any case, they will never overlap or intermingle.
This means that, with a few exceptions, every clue either begins or ends with a definition of the answer. The catch is that you have to find the break between definition and wordplay. The constructor tries to challenge you with clues whose surface meaning puts you off the scent -- for example, with a clue whose parts split in the middle of a common two-word phrase, or by seeming to use a word as a verb that is really meant as a noun. Cryptic clues may also use punctuation in whatever manner seems most likely to deceive; solvers are warned to ignore punctuation (except in two special cases mentioned below).
Cryptic clues generally direct you (albeit deceptively) to the type of wordplay involved. Here is a tour of the eight common types of wordplay, along with hints on how to spot them. The number in parentheses following a clue tells you how many letters are in the clue answer.
Probably the most common cryptic clueing technique is to form the answer by rearranging the letters in a word or group of words as they appear in the clue-making, for instance, paternal from prenatal, honestly from on the sly, or Episcopal from Pepsi-Cola. A wide variety of words can signal an anagram: among them are anything suggesting disorderly, misshapen, drunk, crazy, or simply bad or wrong -- also repaired, fixed, shuffled, in motion, and so on. Here is an elementary example:
Inebriated pirates travel about (7)
The wordplay, inebriated pirates, tells you to find an anagram of pirates that means “travel about.” The answer is traipse.
Anagrams may involve more than one word in the clue. For example:
Doctor is venal -- get a preacher (10)
This time, the wordplay is an instruction. It tells you to “doctor,” or alter deceptively, the letters in is venal get to form a word meaning “preacher,” i.e., evangelist. In the example, the dash provides part of the clue’s surface sense and is ignored in the wordplay itself.
As in the flat type (or the game) of this name, an answer can be broken down into two or more words that appear in succession; for example, consummate is made up of con, sum, and mate. The subsidiary indication may simply list these words, or their synonyms, in order; components of a charade may also be joined by words like at, by, near, before, after; or (in Down clues) on, over, or beneath. A simple example:
Growth on the face must be sore (8)
The answer, mustache, joins must and ache (“be sore”). Charades may be composed of more than two words. For example:
Minstrel shows dance, gaining a buck (9)
The answer, balladeer (defined by “minstrel”), shows ball (“dance”) gaining a deer (“a buck”).
One word is placed within the letters of another word; in courthouse, for instance, thou is contained within course. This technique is signaled by such words as inside, holding, swallowing, within (and its deceptive opposite, without), and around. For example:
Discovered calf in grass (8)
Here the word veal (clued by “calf”) is in reed (“grass”) to make revealed, defined by “discovered.”
An answer is identified as another word read in reverse -- as, for instance, timer and remit, or stressed and desserts. This kind of clue is signaled by such hints as backwards, returning, heading west, from right to left, or (in Down clues) upward or rising. For example:
Spies bring silverware back (6)
The clue tells you to bring spoons (“silverware”) back to get the answer snoops (“spies”).
Words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like through and threw or bizarre and bazaar, can be the basis of a clue. Look for indicators like spoken, aloud, or they say. For example:
Shakespeare, I hear, is excluded (6)
When you hear bard (“Shakespeare”), you get the answer, barred (“excluded”).
Some answers are formed by deleting a letter or group of letters from another word -- removing the beginning of islander, for instance, leaves slander, while deadliness without its concluding letter produces deadlines. The subsidiary may indicate the position of the letter to be deleted with words like beheaded, endlessly, or (in a Down clue) topless; or it may specify a particular letter or letters to be omitted. Here is an example of each type:
Pins: superfluous without an end (7)
The answer to the first clue, needles, is needless (“superfluous”) without its final letter. In the second clue, reactor (“power plant”) lacks a; this gives the answer, rector (“spiritual leader”).
Perhaps the simplest type of wordplay provides a second definition of the answer, preferably in an unrelated sense. For instance:
Holler “Author!” (6)
The answer, bellow or Bellow, is clued in two different meanings. Often the second definition can be a punning or whimsical one; by convention, such clues are flagged with a question mark. Here is an example:
Oinking tendency? (8)
The answer, penchant, is clued normally by “tendency,” and punningly, as pen chant, by “oinking.”
In this type, the answer is printed explicitly in the clue, but camouflaged within another word or other words; look for indicators like seen in, running through, or in part. Here is an example:
Cheese stored in Baroque fortress (9)
The answer, Roquefort, is literally stored in the words Baroque fortress.
These examples present cryptic clueing techniques in their pure form. In practice, these types of clues are often combined. For example, a clue may ask you to contain an anagrammed word within another word, or to read a hidden word in reverse.
Another complication: clues often involve individual letters or strings of letters that are not words. So be on the lookout for Roman numerals, compass points, common abbreviations -- left and right indicating L and R, for instance -- or less common ones, which should be hinted at with indicators like briefly or in short. Enigma cryptics stick to MW abbreviations, generally making note of those (NI2 or NI3) not in 11C.
There are also more cryptic ways to indicate parts of words. For example, The Fourth of July can mean the letter Y (the fourth letter in the word July); similarly, Brahms’ Second is R, Norwegian leader is N, and the Heart of Dixie is X (or possibly IXI).
In any case, there will always be a “straight” definition as well as a tricky subsidiary to guide you to the clue answer -- with one special exception: sometimes the entire clue is both the definition and the wordplay. An example:
Terribly evil! (4)
The answer, vile, is defined by the entire clue. But the clue serves simultaneously as the wordplay, indicating that the answer is evil anagrammed (or “terribly”). This is known as an & lit. clue (“and literally so” -- the term goes back to cryptic crosswords’ British roots). Conventionally, it is marked with an exclamation point; some editors and composers choose not to mark it.
Cryptic crosswords often use a British-style diagram, in which words are separated by heavy black bars instead of black squares.
Many cryptic crosswords feature a theme or gimmick. A puzzle may have special rules for entering clue answers into the diagram, for instance. You may have to reverse the letters or delete letters, for instance. You may have to follow directions that become clear only as you work. The clue answers are distinguished from the diagram entries, or lights.
This page was last updated on Friday, December 17, 2010. /webmaster
©1883 — 2016 National Puzzlers' League.
Last modified Friday, December 17, 2010