How to solve cryptic clues

Ready to solve

This is a general introduction. It covers briefly the most common types of cryptic clues and looks at how to recognise a clue type and solve them, as well as how you might design one yourself. Setting clues can be just as much fun as solving them and will illuminate the solving process. A useful range of books and websites is given at the end.

What makes a crossword clue cryptic?

A cryptic clue says one thing but means another.

Great shot by Player (7)

Gary Player was a wonderful South African golfer. The surface brings to mind a terrific shot in a game of golf – a great drive from the tee down the centre of the fairway in a hurricane, an impossible chip from Hitler’s bunker, a long put. But it is not what it seems of course. Almost everything is not what it seems.

The answer is LINCOLN.

What??!!!

John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838 – April 26, 1865) was an American stage actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on April 14th, 1865.

‘Great’ in the clue is used in the solving as a noun and not an adjective. Lincoln is one of the greats in American history. ‘shot’ is not a golf shot but one fired from a gun. ‘Player’ is not Gary the golfer but player meaning actor.

In passing, note that ‘Player’ has a capital letter which encourages us to think of Gary Player. The convention is that a setter can change a lower case to an upper case. But the reverse is not allowed. If the word has a capital, the setter will not remove it. It has to stay.

Some clues by very busy setters have admirable and correct wordplay but the surface can be just a meaningless jumble. The clue still satisfies the solver solely obsessed by the solution. We should appreciate the scenery too I think. Setters like Arachne put a great deal of thought into the surfaces. Likewise, Enigmatist’s thematic references are incredible.

Clue structure

The majority of cryptic crossword clues contain a definition for the solution. This might be just like a clue in a ‘quick’ crossword. Along with the definition, there is usually a subsidiary part which indicates how to form the solution – the wordplay. The definition is almost always at the start or at the end of the clue. Occasionally it is somewhere in the middle but it is always made very clear that it is the definition.

In a quick crossword the simple definition clues often bring to mind several words of the right number of letters. But which one should go into the grid? You try to keep all the balls in the air, all the plates spinning, until one possible answer fits with another and another. Then you can start putting the words in the grid. This is the charm of the quick crossword. There are similar elements in Sudoku solving. If this, then that. And if that, then this. But on the other hand if that, this, this that. The harder Sudoku puzzles have longer and longer chains of logic.

Have you heard someone burst out laughing doing a quick crossword or a Sudoku?

In a cryptic crossword, the clues are harder to solve but when you get the answer you know you have got it right. A cryptic clue (on its own) should be precise. It helps to be short. Good clues ‘ping’.

Types of clue

1. Anagrams

Straightforward anagram clues have a word or words which we are to be mixed up to form the solution. There will be an anagram signal such as ‘at sea’, ‘out’, ‘perhaps’, ‘revolutionary’, sometimes a question mark, and hundreds more ways of signalling.

Example:

Top drawer mix-up – dense error indeed (3-5,8)

The solution has 16 letters. ‘Dense error indeed’ has 16 letters. ‘Mix-up’ could be an anagram signal. ‘Top drawer’ would then be the definition – straight definition or cryptic? This was in a Christmas crossword. An anagram of ‘dense error indeed’ is RED-NOSED REINDEER. Rudolph draws Santa’s sleigh and leads the other reindeer. So it’s not a first class cock-up!

Simple anagrams are often the easiest clues to solve. If you cannot ‘break into’ a puzzle, a good tip is to look for an anagram. A crossword puzzle might have two or three anagrams, rarely four. To make the solving more difficult they can be split into two or more parts forming a compound anagram. Though used sparingly as a pure anagram, setters use anagrams a lot to form part of the solution, along with another trick or two.

The word ‘parse’ has surprising number of anagrams including:

apres, asper, pares, parse, pears, presa, rapes, reaps, repas, serpa, spare, spear, spera

Can you solve these two?

Frenchman’s after pears perhaps (5)

Left-over pears are mashed up (5)

Can you design an anagram clue using the list above?

By the way, English dictionary words from other languages can be used without compunction. You can also use very simple words of French, German, Italian and Spanish. Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungsauf would be pushing it.

German, with its word-building, would be brilliant for charade clues. Sigh.

2. Charade clues

These are popular clues with solvers, building the solution bit by bit, just as in the game of Charades.

Scot locks seaside flat (7)

MAC + HAIR = MACHAIR

Synonyms and abbreviations are used in these clues. Chambers XWD A Dictionary of Crossword Abbreviations is a useful reference. Chambers Word Wizard has a thesaurus, as does The Chambers Crossword Dictionary. This last is a very battered edition in our house. A mark of heavy use and frustration!

Can you design a charade clue for DISCLOSE? Try to produce a surface reading of the clue that makes some kind of sense and maybe some wit.

Synonyms for DISCLOSE: make known, reveal, tell, confess, let slip, blurt out, relate, publish, broadcast, communicate, make public, expose, reveal, show, exhibit, uncover, lay bare, unveil, bring to light, discover formal divulge, impart colloq. leak, blab, squeal, let the cat out of the bag, spill the beans

Synonyms for DISC include: circle, face, plate, ring, saucer, counter, discus,
record, album, LP, CD, vinyl, gramophone record,disk, diskette, hard disk, floppy disk, compact disk, CD-ROM, microfloppy

Synonyms for LOSE include:

mislay, misplace, forget, miss, not find, forfeit, drop,fail, fall short, suffer defeat, be defeated, be beaten, be conquered, go down, be unsuccessful (colloq.), come to grief, throw in the towel, elude, evade, throw off, shake off, leave behind, outrun, be deprived of, no longer have, stop having, be taken away, be bereaved of, be dispossessed of (formal), be divested of
lose an opportunity not take advantage of, fail to grasp, neglect, miss, disregard, ignore, waste, squander, fritter 
lose your way wander from, stray from, depart from, go astray, get lost, lose your bearings 
waste, squander, spend, consume, use up, exhaust, expend, spend, drain formal dissipate, deplete 

Here’s a rubbish clue to improve upon:

Circle Miss and let the cat out of the bag (8)

When you have a go at this, you might wish you could add a letter to the solution or take one away. If only I could put things in a different order. These kinds of urges led to different kinds of clues.

3. Container contents clues

Here a word is put inside another word, or the wordplay might ask you to put a word around another word.

Finishing with a boxed ear – charming! (9)

[with a boxed] tells you to put a word for ‘finishing’ around a word for ‘ear’. The definition would be ‘charming’.

If ‘finishing’ = ENDING and EAR = EAR

We have END(EAR)ING

4. Hidden words

Bond is involved in scuffle – M is horrified! (7)

Ray Parry Morris won the 3D World Championship with this clue and a super 3D grid with a Fleming/Bond theme. The Flemish Bond is well known to bricklayers.

Occasionally a setter will have to design a clue for a very unpromising word. The ‘hidden’ clue can be one of last resort and well worth keeping up one’s sleeve. One such clue in a puzzle is common, two is unusual. Setters like to use a full range of clue types. If you have become stuck in the solving process half-way and have not spotted a hidden clue, it’s well worth having a closer look to find one. And then you are off again.

In a hidden clue the letters of the solution are found together and in the right order. There will be an indicator like ‘in’, ‘enclosed by’ or some such.

Can you design clues that contain the word CORTINA and MAGNET? Such clues should not be too long.

Sometimes a hidden word is found going backwards. There will be an indicator to alert you.

5. Reversals

In these clues the solution or part of it is written backwards. There will be an indicator of the reversal. In a down clue, the indicator could be as simple as ‘up’ or ‘North’.

Look round inside of castle (4)

PEEK (look) is reversed (round) to give KEEP

In recession/retreat/retrospect, back, backed, backwards, brought back, sent back, echoing, reflecting, retro, and set back all tell us to reverse something.

Specific to across clues: going West, from the East.

Specific to down clues: not written down, brought up, ascendant, giving up.

Can you design clues for RATS and PETS?

6. Additions and subtractions

Here a letter or letters/words are added or removed.

From Rufus:

Criminal gets in at the back of the house (7)

VILLA + IN

From Arachne:

Cheeky and careless but not initially rash (8)

IMP(r)UDENT – r = IMPUDENT

Abbreviations are often used.

7. Initial letters

Here the first letters of consecutive words in the clue are used.

Storm starts to get a little exciting (4)

GALE

Indicators: initially, starts to, beginnings of

Choose the longest word you can and design an initial letters clue. Aim for a smooth surface.

8. More about definitions

8.1 Straightforward definitions

A bread and butter cryptic clue has a definition like those in quick crosswords. When you identify the definition in the clue a number of words might spring to mind of the right length. The wordplay shows how to work out which word is the one required.

From Rufus:

Turns down right away and throws out (6)

The definition might be ‘Turns’, Turns down’, ‘out’ or ‘throws out’.

There is some obfuscation in that ‘out’ could be an anagram signal for ‘throws’ (6) but it transpires that ‘throws out’ is the definition. The wordplay is ‘Turns down right away’. We need to find a word for ‘Turns down’ and then remove the letter ‘R’ which is an abbreviation for ‘right’. After some searching REJECTS comes to mind and when the ‘R’ is removed, we have the answer EJECTS. Alternatively, we might have come up with the answer first, EJECTS, and then find adding an ‘R’ gives us REJECTS.

Solving such clues can start with the wordplay and lead to the definition, or start with the definition and find justification in the wordplay. If the answer is an obscure word, as can be the case with an AZED puzzle for instance, we might need to rely on very precise wordplay. If the definition is not straightforward but is a cryptic one, the same is often true, but we get a rather nice penny dropping moment.

For the purpose of this subsection, ‘throws out’ is a straightforward definition. Such clues (after anagrams, first letters and hidden ones) might be amongst the first clues one solves. The more letters we have from other solutions, the easier they get.

8.2 Double definitions

The clue comprises two definitions. Usually, when put together the two definitions make something meaningful.

Arab housing firm (6)

‘Arab housing’ = STABLE = ‘firm’

8.3 Cryptic definitions

Len’s jig danced ad nausea (7)

What’s that all about? Len is a judge on ‘Strictly’ where they do a lot of dancing and perhaps you can have too much? But that’s the surface and will have little to do with the solution.

‘danced’ is an anagram signal for ‘Len’s jig’. If you put LENSJIG into Chambers Word Wizard it finds only one anagram if you had not spotted it already.

JINGLES

Jingles being those nauseating catchy repetitive phrases in advertisements and hence the cryptic definition ‘ad nausea’.

Sometimes the entire clue could be a cryptic definition.

Chap on the pull drives into red light area (6)

The rather seedy surface is unlikely to yield an answer straight away. The clue is like a riddle. No anagrams, additions, subtractions, reversals, etc. This one on its own is very hard to solve and what’s the point? But in a themed crossword about Santa’s reindeer the answer is quite innocent and not seedy at all. It’s just a reindeer pulling a sleigh and because he has a red nose illuminating the way, he always drives into that red light.

RUDOLPH

8.4 &lit clues

These are rather special clues.

Very occasionally the whole clue is made up of wordplay and the whole clue is also the definition. These are quite rare, difficult to design and often rather elegant too.

What’s tea poured around in? (5)

Tea = CHA, which leads to CH(IN)A, which also answers the question. Isn’t that lovely?

Such clues are denoted &lit (‘and literally so’). They often come with an exclamation mark.

9. Mixtures

Setters use two or more selections of the above types in a clue to make it more interesting. A word might almost be anagrammed to produce the solution if only a letter was added or taken away. The convention has been that all the letters of the anagram are present in the clue but abbreviations are creeping in and creeping out.

10. The unexpected

My favourite setters are always on the lookout for something a little bit different – something that defies being classified amongst the above. ‘The Fifth of November’ or putting steam, axiom, tantrum together with ‘mending’ (m-ending).

With fabulous setters like Puck, Araucaria and others we learn to expect the unexpected! But where?

In an HG Wells puzzle, Puck’s

Handy? (3,7,2,7)

Leads to The Outline of History.

My favourite setters are opportunistic, creative, interesting, suspenseful. They avoid the formulaic and are scrupulously fair.

Books and websites:

There are several good books on the shelves which cover crossword solving in much more detail. Here are two excellent examples:

Secrets of the Setters – Prof Hugh Stephenson, Guardian Crossword Editor

Chambers Crossword Manual – Don Manley (Pasquale, Quixote, Duck etc), updated 2014.

The Chambers Standard Reference Dictionary is a common source for many crossword suppliers and setters generally, who might also specify the edition – 13th edition being the latest.

The Chambers Word Wizard has the words in the Chambers Dictionary. This is very useful when working at a computer. It is fast but not always an accurate reflection of the printed version. It’s best to check with the printed version, particularly when designing grids or writing clues.

The Word Wizard has a partial word find which is very useful for finding words which fit when you have some of the letters of a solution. This is much faster than trawling through a printed dictionary. But you do miss out on coming across interesting words which do not fit. It also supplies anagrams when you get fed up!

Collins and Oxford Dictionary of English are both online (choose the UK option). These are free to use. Collins is the reference source for The Times. With over a million definitions it has more proper nouns than Chambers.

OneLook Dictionary has several million words with many more proper nouns and words from dictionaries around the world, including the interesting Urban Dictionary. It does not include Chambers. OneLook also has a partial word find.

Peter Biddlecombe, formidable solver and Sunday Times Crossword Editor (excellent crossword with a clue writing competition), presents useful advice and a booklist on his cryptic crossword bookshelf.

‘Mrs Sirius’

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