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How to Solve Crossword Puzzles

by Parker Lewis and Roy Leban

Crossword puzzles have provided an entertaining diversion for solvers ever since 1913, when the first ever “word-cross” puzzle was published by Arthur Wynne. During the 1920s, the crossword puzzle phenomenon picked up speed and prompted huge spikes in dictionary sales, spawned crossword-patterned clothing and jewelry, and even inspired a skit about a sanitorium for crossword puzzle addicts. Today it is estimated that over 50 million people in the US solve crosswords every day.

If you have never tried to solve a crossword puzzle, you are missing out. While they might seem daunting at first, they quickly get easier once you understand how to solve them. Here are some tips and techniques to get you started plus an explanation of some of the rules and conventions followed by crossword constructors and editors.

Select the Right Puzzles

The first step to successful solving is to pick the right puzzles. Not all crosswords are equally difficult — they range from easy to mind-numbingly difficult, and some puzzles require specialized knowledge such as pop culture, music, movies, or hipster slang. Crosswords also vary by constructor — some constructors will have lots of punny clues, others will require a lot of knowledge of trivia, while still others might have clues that are very definitional — so it’s really helpful to solve a puzzle in a book before you buy it.

The Grid

Over the years, crossword grids have developed some standard conventions. Of course there are always exceptions to any rule, these are a few of the requirements:

  • The black blocks that signify the starts and ends of words must have rotational symmetry, meaning that they keep the same pattern when rotated 180 degrees
  • All words in the grid should be at least three letters long; no two-letter words allowed
  • Sometimes there is a maximum number of blocks allowed in the grid which encourages a more wide open puzzle with longer words
  • Similarly, many editors have a maximum word count which also necessitates grid designs with a minimum of three-letter words

While somewhat restrictive, these requirements still allow for a wide variety of grid designs, some of which are quite aesthetically pleasing.

A common alternative to the block-style grid is the bar-style grid. The same requirements apply, but in these grids, the words are separated by thick bars instead of solid blocks. This means that every square in the grid will be filled by a letter and that the entry words look squished together. One advantage to this style, is that none of the grid space is taken up by the blocks which can allow for more content. Either style of puzzle will be solved in the same manner; the only difference is the visual appearance.

Start with What You Know

You don’t need to start a crossword with the first clue. If you know it, great, but it’s better to start with the gimmes — those clues whose answers you know right off the bat, usually without even needing to know the answer length. The gimme clues are different for everybody. Maybe you know a lot of sports trivia while somebody else knows all the Hollywood actors. Whatever it is, go through the clue list and see what you can spot. Pay attention to the “fill in the blank” clues, discussed below. They won’t always be gimmes for you, but your odds are better.

Once you’ve filled in all the gimmes, it’s time to start looking at the less obvious clues. This time, look at not only the answer lengths but what letters you’ve already filled into the grid. Sometimes, a clue that wasn’t obvious at all might become obvious once you know a letter or two. For example, Fab guy might have meant nothing to you when you first saw it, but now that you know it’s a four-letter answer that starts with a J, you might realize it’s JOHN (Lennon), a member of the Fab Four.

Uncommon Letters

Once you’ve filled in a few words, a good technique is to look at the uncommon letters that you’ve filled in — Q, Z, J, K, etc. There are a lot fewer words with Q in them than E, so just knowing a crossing entry has a Q in it gives you a leg up on making a guess.

Go Back and Forth

Once you’ve exhausted everything you can fill in by just knowing it, you’ll have to start using logic. A good technique is to go back and forth between the Across and Down clues. Suppose you’ve got a Q in the grid. There’s a pretty good chance the next letter is a U, so take a look at the crossing entry and see if that U helps you. Or, suppose you’ve got the clue A Beatle, 4 letters. It pretty much has to be either JOHN or PAUL. The J and the P are the most uncommon letters, so look at the crossing entry to see if you can confirm either of those letters. If you can’t, move on. Does the O or A help you? Keep going with each pair of letters to see if you can figure out a crossing entry.

The Rules of English

It helps to think about how words are constructed in the English language. For example, most plurals end in -S, so any plural clue is likely to have an answer that ends in S. Look at the crossing word to see if that helps (and remember the letter before the S is frequently an E). Thinking about what prefixes and suffixes might be used in the answer word can help a lot. For example, a clue about a reversal of some sort might have an answer that begins with RE- or UN-, while a past tense clue might have an answer ending in -ED.

Other common prefixes to think about include DE-, DIS-, EN-, IN-, MIS-, and PRE-. Other common suffixes include -ING, -ER, -OR, -ISM, -IST, -NESS, -TION, -ABLE, -LESS, -LY, and -Y. You may find it useful to pencil in a prefix or suffix just to have it remind you of the possibilities.

The letters you know in an entry can help you guess at the letters you don’t. For example, if the second letter of an entry is a D, the first letter is likely to be a vowel, but be wary of entries like PD JAMES, CD-ROM, D-DAY, G’DAY, and MDXI. If the second letter of an entry is an H, it’s likely the first letter is a C, T, S or W, and, conversely, if the first letter is a C, T, S, or W, you’ve got a slightly better chance that the second letter is an H.

Go Through the Alphabet

Sometimes, you’ll have most of the letters in a word and still have no idea. When that happens, it can help to run through the alphabet, trying each letter. There’s only 26 of them! Don’t forget the vowels, even if you think there won’t be a vowel in that spot, and be alert for pronunciation changes. For example, the pronunciation of the letters BIKIN change depending on whether they’re followed by an G or an I. And don’t forget foreign words and words with foreign roots like LIEU, ADIEU, and LIAISON.

Foreign Languages

Speaking of foreign words, if the answer is a foreign word, the clue will often include another word from the same language. If not, then you might see a specific indication such as (fr.) or (sp.). For example HOLA might be clued as Hello (sp.), Hello in Spanish, or Juan’s Hello.

Know the Lingo

Once you’ve solved a few crosswords, you’ll notice that some words are more common than others. You won’t see MXYZPTLK and PDQ BACH very often, but OREO, ALOE, and lots of three letter words will become familiar. One reason for this is that crosswords, by necessity, have more three- and four-letter words in them than longer words, but it’s also the case that some letters in English are a lot more common than others. The T section of the dictionary is a lot bigger than the E section.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to study up on these words — you’ll learn them soon enough. But, when you see a clue for a 4-letter cookie, maybe the answer is OREO.

Fill in the Blanks

A blank ___ is usually filled in with a single word that fits with the rest of the clue. However, many times the blank space can be filled in with two or more words. In easier crosswords, multiple words will be indicated with (2 words) or (2 wds.), but more often than not it will be up to the solver to determine how many words fill in the space. Another hint sometimes used in clues is (hyphenated).

Example: You win some, you ___ some
Answer: LOSE

Example: ___ no good (2 words)
Answer: UPTO

Example: ___ punch (hyphenated)
Answer: ONETWO

Abbreviations

If there is an abbreviation in a clue, then most likely the answer will also be abbreviated. Otherwise an abbreviation will be indicated with “abbr.” Easier puzzles are more likely to have an explicit abbreviation indicator, but you should still be alert.

Example: Organization for the Seattle Sounders (abbr.)
Answer: MLS

Example: Org. for the Seattle Sounders
Answer: MLS

Question Marks

A ? at the end of a clue means that something tricky is going on. There are all kinds of wordplay that constructors use when writing clues. Think outside the box!

Example: One who has a lot to offer?
Answer: REALTOR

Example: Give a toast?
Answer: FEED

Example: New Jersey?
Answer: CALF

Clue and Answer Agreement

Clues and answers must make sense grammatically. For example, if a clue indicates a plural, then the answer will also be a plural. Plural answers often end in an S and filling that in at the end of the word can help you figure out the crossing word. For example, People who prepare food can clue CHEFS or COOKS, but not BAKER or FRYER. But don’t assume that a plural clue means an answer that ends in an S. Places for braces clues TEETH, not TOOTHS!

Similarly, verb tenses in clues and answers must also agree. Consumes can clue EATS, but not EAT, ATE, or DINE. Bear in mind that some verbs can be interpreted in several different ways. Hit the hay can clue either SLEEP or SLEPT.

Quotation Marks

A clue that is contained in quotes represents a word or phrase that is said in spoken language, not necessarily a direct definition. The answer may be a colloquial word or phrase that has a similar meaning to the clue.

Example: “Holy smokes!”
Answer: WOW

Example: “Yeah, why not”
Answer: SURE

Example: “I have no clue”
Answer: BEATSME

Cross Referencing

Some clues reference other clues using a clue number and direction. There are two common ways that this is done.

The first way is a simple cross-reference. Suppose the answer to 10-Across is CAT. Another clue could read Sound that a 10-Across makes, which clues MEOW.

The second way is a combined clue. For example, suppose 1-Across is clued as With 13-Down, someone who regular stays up late and 13-Down is clued as simply See 1-Across. These clues indicate that there is a single multi-word answer that will fill both 1-Across and 13-Down, broken on a word boundary (or sometimes a hyphen). In this case, 1-Across could be NIGHT and 13-Down could be OWL, combining to make the whole answer NIGHT OWL.

Themes

Last but not least, most crossword puzzles have a theme and figuring out how the theme works is a major part of the solving process. Theme entries are answers in the grid that all share some kind of common characteristic or are tied together using some sort of wordplay. They are usually the longest entries in the grid and are often placed symmetrically (sometimes Down, but more often Across).

Sometimes the clues for the theme entries will be indicated visually, such as with an asterisk. Other times there will be an entry or entries in the grid which will reveal the theme. Another way constructors indicate the theme is through the title of the Puzzle. Not all puzzles have titles, but if they do, the title usually hints at the theme in some way.

Title: Internal Narrative

17. * Obnoxious people
Answer: SMARTALECKS

28. * Foes
Answer: MORTALENEMIES

46. * Punished, in a way
Answer: TAUGHTALESSON

58. Reporter’s scoop, or a hint to what can be found in the starred entries
Answer: INSIDESTORY

In this example, three theme entries are hiding the letters TALE which is explained by the last entry as well as by the title.

Hints

If you get stuck, don’t forget you can get hints by tapping on the light bulb icon. You have the option to reveal a letter or answer and also to clear out any errors. It’s not cheating to ask for a hint — the goal is to have fun, so if asking for a hint increases your enjoyment, feel free.

 
 

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