A GUIDE TO
Quick Jump to:
"To the uninitiated..."
These opening words stand out in my memory of Teach Yourself Crosswords by the greatly missed Alec Robbins (Custos of The Guardian and Everyman of The Observer, and he also produced Listener-type puzzles as Zander), although I will happily stand corrected if these words did not actually appear at the very beginning of this great book.
The words began a sentence which explained how those who have never tackled cryptic crosswords before might be utterly bamboozled by the apparently arcane language and rules adopted by compilers (or setters - Alec wasn't too keen on the former word since, by definition, it refers to those who collect information rather than create it).
He then went on to explain that, contrary to what one may think, cryptic clues are (theoretically at least) easier than their straightforward definition counterparts. The reason is simple. A definition clue gives you just that - a definition and nothing more:
Suppose the crossword grid has two letters of the answer filled in and you are left with -AT. Is the answer BAT, CAT or RAT? There is no way of knowing. A cryptic clue gives additional information about the letters which make up the answer:
Animal Liberators captured (3)
This clue tells us that the word "liberators" has "captured" the letters of the answer we are looking for, and it doesn't take long to spot RAT somewhere near the middle. Cryptic clue wordplay takes many forms, all of which are governed by a set of rules to maintain fairness and accuracy.
Essentially a cryptic clue
contains three parts:
Hear client is acquitted (2,3,5)
In this example, the definition happens to be the final word "acquitted", and a quick shuffle of the letters in HEAR CLIENT (the filler) gives us our answer IN THE CLEAR. However, there is nothing in the clue to tell us that an anagram is used as the device, and that makes it unacceptable for use. The setter has a wealth of indicators to hand - in fact the number of anagram indicators is higher than for any other device, and some are easier to appreciate than others. Among the most obvious are words like "broken", "mad", "re-arranged". Then there are far more difficult suggestions like "bananas", "doctor", "resort" and literally thousands more. We can turn the clue above into something perfectly valid by inserting one of the more well known anagram indicators:
Hear client might be acquitted (2,3,5)
This gives us the information
we need. The letters of HEAR CLIENT "might be" arranged to give the answer
meaning "acquitted". Indicators are not always needed. For
example, the charade device simply exploits the fact that the letters of an
answer can be split to form separate readable parts. PRONOUNCEMENT can be
split into the two words PRONOUN and CEMENT, and the clue writer is not
obliged to use prepositions such as "with" to indicate the running together
of these words. The indicator is required only when a group of letters must
somehow be adapted before entry in the grid. As we work through the various
clue types, some incorrect examples will be given to further explain the
rules of clue writing.
For the evil that men do ~ doth live on after them
Granted, neither half of this example constitutes a stock phrase that could ever appear in a crossword, but it highlights the degree to which a simple word or phrase can be turned into something memorable. This next anagram uses a stock phrase which would be perfectly acceptable within a crossword:
Familiarity breeds contempt = Bet it's typical of married men
However, we could not exploit this as a clue along the lines of:
Being too close can create hatred - bet it's typical of married men! (11,6,8)
As in the IN THE CLEAR example earlier, this clue is wrong because it contains no device indicator, even though the picture it paints may look convincing. It used to be the case, by the way, that the simple addition of the exclamation mark was deemed sufficient as an anagram indicator.
"Hear client might be acquitted" is an example of a FULL ANAGRAM in which all letters of the answer have been treated. Where only part of the solution is treated it is called a PART or PARTIAL ANAGRAM. The cryptic clue writer may want to split the word CONTRAST into CON + an anagram of START - this latter component is the partial anagram.
Setters and editors are split over what is and is not acceptable when it comes to a slightly different procedure - the subtraction anagram. This involves a word or phrase in the clue from which a number of letters must be removed before the anagram is formed. Take the following example:
Soiled underpants nuns refused to take off (6)
The answer is DEPART (to take off), which is arrived at by rearranging the letters of UNDERPANTS (the anagram indicator here is "soiled") but without the letters of NUNS - "refused" is offered as the subtraction indicator. In some publications this clue would be accepted as fair. In others, the editor may point out that the letters of NUNS have themselves been rearranged within the letters of UNDERPANTS, and that the setter should indicate this:
Soiled underpants nuns stubbornly refused to take off (6)
Here, "stubbornly" is used as the anagram indicator. Whether solving or writing clues, it is worth looking out for editorial preferences such as this. In turn, these preferences should be consistent within your chosen publication - if they are not, you have every right to complain!
More serious - and surprisingly common - mistakes are shown in these examples:
New version of a
red hat (6)
In the first clue, the setter hopes we will find FEDORA (hat) by rearranging the letters of "of a red", but this sentence shows us exactly what is wrong. The word "of" is doing double duty, and to make clue-writing sense we should see "New version of of a red hat".
Bit part (5)
The surface reading suggests a minor theatre role, and the setter has therefore done well in terms of misleading us. The weakness emerges when we see the answer PIECE. "Bit" and "part" are identical in meaning - in fact it's not really a double meaning clue at all.
Sound like a shot (4)
This is somewhat better and its
conjuring up of the image of a noise possibly made by a firearm is
convincing. The answer is FAST, meaning "sound" and "like a shot",
and the clue works partly because the solver will see "sound like"
more quickly than "like a shot". Incidentally, several
words have many more than just two meanings, and setters will occasionally
string three or more definitions together in a clue. Such instances are
rare, not least because adding definition upon definition simply creates a
long, often unwieldy clue that would have been just as good with two
Go mad in the office (12)
The answer comprises DEPART ("go") and MENTAL ("mad") to give DEPARTMENTAL ("in the office"). The setter is not required to include an indicator, but may do so if it leads to better surface reading. An indicator must be used, however, if the components are not clued sequentially. If the setter decides to describe the second half of a two-part charade before the first, this should be shown in the clue - with reference, by the way, to whether the answer runs across or down in the grid; the setter cannot, for example, describe this second part as being "under" the first if he is writing an across clue. Here are two charade examples - an old nugget and something less straightforward:
Wave a cereal
The first uses factual definitions of the answer's components. BRAN ("a cereal") + DISH ("bowl") give us BRANDISH ("wave").
The second example is more involved because it exploits the fact that "rubbish" can be a verb as well as a noun. DEN ("study") + OUNCE ("a bit") lead to DENOUNCE ("rubbish"). Of note here is the apostrophe of "study's", which highlights part of the setter's art. If we expand the clue as we expect to read it, we would automatically create "Study is a bit rubbish", but the cryptic clue writer is not bound by what we are expecting, and we should remember that a cryptic clue is not intended to be a grammatically meaningful sentence - it is merely the stringing together of component parts. The apostrophe used in the clue is actually a shortening of "study has", the word "has" being the setter's optional inclusion of an indicator to show two parts appearing next to each other.
The third clue leads to BOUGH ("branch"), using BO (the sacred tree of Buddhism whose name only ever seems to crop up in crosswords) and UGH ("that's rotten!"). Note the exclamation mark - it seems to be a message from the setter; "Look how clever my clue is!". Solvers and editors dislike such usage, and quite rightly; they are the judges of clue quality, not the setter. However, on this occasion the "!" is a necessary part of the definition:- Ugh! = That's rotten!
When the setter chooses to describe one part of the charade before another, despite them appearing the other way around in the answer, the result can be quite misleading, even when technically accurate:
Look after a small French town (6)
Our answer is AMIENS, ("French
town"). There are three parts to the charade - A + MIEN ("look")
+ S ("small"), but the wording of the clue, while explicitly telling
us that MIEN must appear after A, does not make clear that the S
component appears at the end. The answer could in fact comprise A + S +
MIEN. However, the clue is both accurate and fair. It is up to the solver to
realise that ASMIEN is clearly the wrong answer.
Holiday companies, say (6)
The answer CRUISE ("holiday")
sounds like CREWS ("companies") and "say" is employed to
suggest the homonym. In this type of clue, many setters fall into the trap
of ambiguity by putting the indicator in the middle of the clue. This is
further explained in the "Reversal" section below.
In each of these examples the
setter disguises the device more convincingly by ensuring the letters of the
answers change their pronunciation. In the first clue the "group" of
letters we are looking for in "tasting" is ASTI - a type of wine.
When the letter count of an answer exceeds 6 or 7 the task of concealing it
in a hidden clue becomes more difficult. The second clue addresses this
problem successfully in two ways. Firstly (and as a very rare example) the
definition appears not at the beginning or end of the clue but within it.
Secondly, it employs the word "content" in what appears to be its
adjectival form which, fortuitously, also changes the stresses of its
syllables. It is, however, a noun. The definition is "really", and
the "really" content of "(the) relationships of actors" is IPSO
FACTO. The third clue makes use of the setter's freedom to split the
answer's letters with an extra word, in this case "and". The "bridge"
between the letters of BATTERSEA and CHELSEA is ACHE ("long").
Did some digging, turned up material (5)
On the face of it this appears straightforward. If we reverse MINED ("did some digging") we get DENIM ("material"), but if we read the clue again it becomes apparent that both MINED and DENIM are suitable as answers, because the indicator fails to make clear which component of the clue needs to be reversed. The setter would be wise to opt for something more explicit, albeit slightly clumsy:
Turned up, did some digging to find material (5)
In this version only the letters of MINED can be reversed. The surface reading may not be as sharp, but a sharp-looking clue is no good if it's an unfair one.
Butcher's having to stock up (4)
This one is tougher, although it
sticks to the rules. All that is required is some lateral thought on the
part of the solver, who will have to think of Cockney rhyming slang as he
reads "butcher's", i.e. "butcher's hook", meaning "look". Reversing
that leads to KOOL, which does not satisfy any remaining part of the clue.
The experienced solver may be suspicious of the final word "up" and
will keep in mind the possibility of a reversal, particularly since this is
a down clue. So, we're looking for another word for "look" which, when
reversed, means "to stock". A little trial and error should lead to PEEK /
KEEP, and the construction of the clue leaves us in no doubt that PEEK is
the right answer.
Cooked meat in the oven - uncooked outside it? (7)
This example is our first real
introduction to the setter taking great pains to employ effective wording to
give the clue better surface reading, and it is worth examining in some
Projection made from detailed account (5)
On its own this is a tricky clue, although the solver would get the answer quite quickly if interlocking solutions in the puzzle provided some given letters. The answer is LEDGE ("projection"), arrived at by removing the last letter of LEDGER ("account"). The indicator is the oft-used "detailed" which does not mean "having detail" but instead indicates the removal of the "tail". The indicator could have been docked, short, endless among others. Where the first letter is to be removed you could expect headless, not introduced, first to go etc. Modern cryptic clues allow the setter to remove letters almost at will, provided the indicator is accurate. A common device in The Times is to select alternate letters for removal:
Roman attire regularly used by strongman (4)
"Regularly used" is the key here, and in STRONGMAN we have the alternating letters sTrOnGmAn = TOGA. The setter may also assign numerical values to the positions of letters in the answer, in other words using indicators like odd parts (i.e. 1st, 3rd, 5th etc letters) or evenly (2nd, 4th, 6th etc). Thus the clue above could also have been written as:
Strongman drops odd bits of Roman clothing (4)
Perhaps the earlier version is better. The second clue uses the word "of" which is - if we want to indulge in technical nit-picking - redundant. However, some editors will deem it acceptable on the principle that the clue is saying "To get the letters OF Roman clothing we drop the odd letters of STRONGMAN". Other editors will flinch. It's not always easy, but when writing a clue it is a good idea to try and read it as if you are the solver and ask yourself if you are being as fair as possible. If you are in doubt, change it - because your solvers will have the same doubts. In a recent puzzle one of my answers contained the letter D which I clued as "down". In the world of crosswords A and D are standard abbreviations for Across and Down and regularly appear within clues which refer to answers elsewhere in the grid. As I wrote the clue I considered it quite fair but the editor was not of the same opinion, and I did not question his judgment for a second. Remember, the editor is not giving you a slap on the wrist (unless you've made a glaring error of course); he is simply taking into account the preferences and expectations of his readership.
Another type of subtraction centres (literally) on the middle of a word, as in this easy clue:
Medal - going without one (4)
The answer is GONG ("medal") which is GOING minus the I ("one") in the middle. Just a very quick aside here; the use of "one" to indicate I used to attract criticism. Just because a solver might enter I as a straight line and might also write the number 1 with no serifs, that doesn't make them synonymous! While true, and despite the fact that the letter O is frequently defined as duck, hoop, ring etc with no apparent difficulty, in cryptic use "one" does not refer to the digit; it is what you might call the Royal One - "One is not prepared to accept...".
A more complicated subtraction clue occurs when the letters to be removed do not appear within the answer in a predictable or, shall we say, "traditional" pattern:
There's no real presence in parental desire (4)
The setter wants us to subtract REAL from PARENTAL to give PANT ("desire"). In most cases, particularly more complex ones, the setter should never offer clues to letters to be removed, or the source thereof. The above clue would be ridiculously unfair as:
There's no genuine presence in progenitive desire (4)
Asking the solver to find a word
for "genuine", then to subtract its letters from another word meaning
"progenitive" in such a way that the result is a word meaning
"desire"... put it this way; if you gave the solver the answer beforehand he
still wouldn't understand the clue!
Humour & Cryptic Definition
Those who attend a gay wedding in Scotland? (8)
The answer is HEBRIDES, which can be read as HE BRIDES, a humorous reference to participants of a gay wedding. A cryptic definition clue dispenses with any reference to the letter arrangement of the answer:
It is nearly always the case
that a cryptic definition clue will end with a question mark, and this has a
dual purpose; to suggest that the answer might be looked at in a certain way
as suggested by the clue, and also to tell the solver that something
slightly unusual is going on. The first clue catapults us headlong into the
world of cricket, which of course has nothing at all to do with the answer.
The use of the word "say" in a clue has one of two meanings - it indicates
either a homonym or "for example". The latter is true here, and after some
head-scratching we realise that "Test" is actually the name of an English
river, and the "ground" beneath its flowing waters is our answer, RIVERBED.
The use of "say" to mean "for example" is essential in this clue, since the
river Test is merely one of thousands of English rivers. The second clue is
slightly contentious. Solvers and setters alike will be familiar with the
use of "down" to indicate feathers (the answer is FEATHERBRAINED) but
purists may argue that "dumb" doesn't quite retain grammatical accuracy for
the purpose of the clue. Perhaps "dumbed" might be better? It is hard to
say. Fortunately most editors are a little more generous towards artistic
licence when a clue offers something humorous or unusual, and this one was
deemed acceptable. The third example is, I confess, in rather poor taste
but, again, it was passed by the editor. The answer is CAR BOMB.
Spectacularly religious rant around piano? (5,9)
"Spectacularly" is one of those slightly arcane (although accepted) anagram indicators. If we rearrange the letters of RELIGIOUS RANT we'll be struggling, as they offer only 13 of the 14 letters we need for the answer. To make the extra letter we incorporate the well-used P ("piano") and eventually discover NEGRO SPIRITUAL. This is a religious song - but a religious rant? No, not really. And you don't automatically visualise it as featuring a group of singers gathered around a piano. In its own way it's a reasonably clever clue, but the setter would have to add a more formal definition somewhere to more accurately describe the answer. This &Lit clue is better:
Potentially a top cleric, this? (8,6)
Resistance units working for the monarchy (4)
The answer is OHMS (units of electrical resistance) which is also an abbreviation for On Her Majesty's Service ("working for the monarchy").
Abbreviations should not generally be indicated in an overtly cryptic manner. While junction and model are acceptable to suggest the letter T (respectively, T-junction and Model T - as in the classic Ford car) we could not use "where roads may meet" or "car". Such examples demand too much of the solver. However, there are instances where a good clue can be created by exploiting abbreviation elements:
Some playing cards, but not diamonds or clubs? (5)
Card players are dealt HANDS of cards. Using the standard abbreviations of the four suits in a deck of cards, it is apparent that the word HANDS suggests H AND S, i.e. Hearts AND Spades; and not, presumably, Diamonds or Clubs.
Book that contains self-importance is silly (4,3,4)
This clue uses three components and a definition, but restricts itself to seven words (six if a hyphenated words counts as one). The "book" in question comes from the Bible, namely ACTS. We then have THAT, and this contains EGO ("self-importance") to make TH(EGO)AT, leading to ACTS THE GOAT ("is silly"). The setter could have made life more difficult by substituting "which" for "that", but to do so would have added an unnecessary level of difficulty since the other two components are already referred to only by definition.
Prepares for traffic when parking finishes (8)
Again we have three components plus a definition using just a handful of words. "Prepares for traffic" is a moderately cryptic definition of the answer ASPHALTS, comprising AS ("when"), P ("parking") and HALTS ("finishes"). This time the setter has not explicitly named all of the components, so the clue is slightly harder.
Campaign featuring measure to copy discarded documents (5,5)
This time two components are placed inside a third one, "featuring" being used to indicate the container element. WAR ("campaign") contains STEP ("measure") and APE ("to copy"); WA(STEP+APE)R = WASTE PAPER ("discarded documents").
These three examples happily
avoid awkward single letter components, but the setter frequently has to
find ways of indicating very small elements of an answer as briefly as
possible. In the early years of cryptic crosswords abbreviations were
restricted to those listed as standard abbreviations in dictionaries -
common ones at that. Needless to say the openings for originality were
rapidly exhausted, and the modern setter has needed to find more adventurous
ways of indicating these "bits and pieces". Standard abbreviations still
play a part, but single letters can now be suggested in a plethora of ways.
S still stands for small, succeeded, shilling etc, but it can also be
head of state, leisure centre, self-starter and more. So long as the
setter clearly indicates the position of the letter in question, he can draw
upon a vast number of single letter suggestions. First, middle or last
letters are most common, but one may encounter a phrase such as second in
command to indicate O.
What makes a good set of clues?
Remember, the primary task of the cryptic crossword is to entertain, and to
do so it must attract and retain the interest of the solver. For the setter,
there is a challenge here. Each clue may be technically sound and have an
acceptable degree of smooth surface reading, but there should be at least
one - preferably a couple - of clues which make the solver keen to embark on
his quest. The occasional short, snappy clue that paints an intriguing
picture will encourage the solver to use other answers to work it out, in
the hope that the setter's ingenuity and wit will offer something memorable.
On the other hand, I've seen and promptly abandoned "quality" newspaper
crosswords whose clues just don't generate any interest. And that could be a
shame - it's quite feasible that there are brilliantly observed treatments
of individual or small groups of letters, but they are padded by a frankly
dull set of clues which I'm not really bothered about solving.
Employee dismissed from engineer's works (6)
The surface reading is just about perfect, but even highly experienced solvers might struggle to understand how the answer, OEUVRE, is arrived at. When you see it explained the reasoning falls into place; "dismissed" suggests the removal of some letters from something, and if we remove MAN (employee) from MANOEUVRE (engineer) the answer is (note the use of the apostrophe - a shortening of "engineer is") we get OEUVRE (works). Well-presented as the clue is, one can't help but feel that it would be much kinder to have simply used "Man" instead of "Employee" - as it stands, the poor solver is having to come up with THREE synonyms, and one of those (engineer as a verb) is particularly misleading.
Iron Maiden vocal that's near the bone (7)
This is a much fairer clue but
its inclusion is not for that reason. Instead, I've included it because it
contains an example of the licence usually extended to cryptic clue writers.
The answer is FEMORAL (a medical term meaning "situated on or near the
femur" - "near the bone" in our clue). To arrive at this we have FE
(Fe = Iron) + M (maiden) + ORAL (vocal). Purists would point
out that the cricketing term maiden is not capitalised. This is quite
correct - but the clue has painted a rather amusing picture of a risqué
piece of lyric in a song by the heavy metal band Iron Maiden, and wouldn't
it be a shame if we had to destroy the surface reading by being absolutely
faithful to the standard printed representation of the word maiden?
Most - probably all - crossword editors would be prepared to run this clue as
It doesn't have a name as such, but it is sometimes referred to as an OO grid (odd/odd). In other words, if we number the rows and columns from 1-15 the answers are contained only in the odd numbered rows and columns. As a result (in the majority of cases anyway) at least 50% of the letters in each answer are cross-checked by letters in other answers. In the above example, 6 answers are 50% checked and the remaining 28 answers are more than 50% checked. In practice, this allows the setter to make use of some of his more challenging clues, since other answers in the grid can offer plenty of clue letters. It is a different story with grids such as this:
This time, 50% is the maximum checking factor and there are several instances of answers with less than 50% of their letters checked - 6, 8, 15, 17, 25 and 26 Across, and 3 and 18 Down. It would be unfair on the solver to have especially hard clues at any of these locations, since minimal help is available from other answers placed in the grid. This type of grid is sometimes called EE (even/even), and there is a general trend away from puzzles in this format; the crossword setter has an easier job because there are fewer checked letters, while that same consideration tends to make the job harder for the solver. The cross between these two types (the OE [odd/even]) is illustrated here:
The answers across are reasonably generous - at least 50% checked - but 3, 6, 15 and 23 Down are potential sticking points. Some grids have answers within both odd and even rows/columns, such as in this example:
Here we have both under- and over-unching. 3 and 28 Across have fewer checked than unchecked letters. Furthermore these, plus 10 and 25 Across and 4, 7, 13 and 20 Down have double letters which are unchecked. Conversely, 12 and 19 Across and 3, 5, 6, 14, 17 and 21 Down are generously cross-checked.
The conscientious clue-writer should take these varying levels of cross-checking into account when creating cryptic clues. There should be no problem in using a couple of real humdingers at 6 and 17 down since, in each case, only two out of eight letters are unchecked, so it should be possible for the solver to get plenty of help from the eleven interlocking answers - provided that these are not too difficult; which they shouldn't be - the setter should be taking the difficulty of 6 and 17 Down into account when writing clues for the interlocking Across clues.
Most of all, whether you are a
solver or setter, have fun! For all of the undoubted mental and academic
improvement and enrichment offered by crosswords, they are a leisure
activity and as such must entertain. Alec Robbins correctly pointed out that
the crossword compiler should be engaging in a battle of wits with the
solver - but a battle which he hopes (perhaps after a bit of a struggle) to