How to Solve Cryptic Crossword Puzzles
by Mike Selinker and Roy Leban
A typical cryptic crossword looks unsolvable at first glance, but the design of cryptic clues is so precise and consistent that, once mastered, they end up being delightful. If you’re familiar with American-style crosswords, you’ll find the clues look completely unfamiliar. They are strange and awesome word equations with any number of tricks going on. All you have to do is learn the tricks and how to recognize them, and it will become a simple matter to solve them. Well, not always quite so simple.
One of the first things you’ll probably notice about a cryptic crossword is that it looks very different from an American-style crossword. It has either lots of blocks (black squares) spread throughout the grid or dark bars between cells. And many letters are only part of one answer, a no-no in a regular crossword. But, in a cryptic, each clue is a mini-puzzle of its own, so these “unchecked” letters are important. By posing less of a constraint on word selection, unchecked letters help improve the quality of words in the puzzle, which matters far more in a cryptic than in a crossword. And, it forces (encourages) the solver to solve every one of the mini-puzzles in order to finish the puzzle. In a block cryptic, every entry in the grid will have at least one unchecked letter.
Think of a cryptic clue as a two-part equation.
The first part (either the left or right half) is a definition, like in a crossword. So the definition of WON TON might be something like Chinese treat or boiled dumpling. If the definition is punny, it might be followed by a question mark.
The second part, on the opposite side from the definition, is the wordplay, sometimes called the cryptic half or the subsidiary indication (the latter is used sometimes in British cryptics). The wordplay may not mean what it seems to say, but it will always say exactly what it means. It will tell you, “Do this trick to this set of words or letters.” For example, one type of wordplay is a reversal, where you reverse letters in a word or phrase, So, later returned might mean “reverse the letters in a word or phrase meaning ‘later’.” The wordplay almost always includes a word or phrase indicating what type of wordplay you’re supposed to do, in this case returned. (This word or phrase is called, appropriately enough, the indicator.)
Sometimes, between the two parts of the clue (and always in the middle) there is a connector. It’s like an equals sign. It may be a phrase like is, yields, leads to, with or even just ’s.
Note the use of the word “might” several times above. A good part of the trick to solving a cryptic clue is figuring out which part of the clue is the definition and which part is the wordplay. The word boiled might be an indicator that you should anagram, while the word returned might just be part of the definition.
Most cryptic crosswords have an enumeration at the end of each clue, which gives you the number of letters in the answer. Enumerations also tell you which entries are more than one word or where the answer has punctuation. For example, WON TON would have the enumeration (3,3), meaning a three-letter word followed by another three-letter word, while SELF-AWARE would have the enumeration (4-5). Spaces are indicated by a comma, a convention started for print publications to keep solvers from misreading an enumeration like (1 4) as (14). Some cryptic crosswords, or some clues within a cryptic crossword, will not have enumerations. Sometimes this is done to hide a trick, such as in a variety cryptic where some answers might have a letter or letters added or dropped before they are entered into the grid. Sometimes, rarely, you will see (enumeration withheld) for an answer in a cryptic. For example, the enumeration (4’1-3,4) and (10’1,6,2,5), both phrases, are unusual enough that some solvers can figure them out without any letters or clues. Give them a try! Answers at the end.
Putting that all together could get a clue like Chinese treat is later returned (3,3). That means “a phrase of two three-letter words meaning ‘Chinese treat’ (the definition) is (the connector) the letters in NOT NOW reversed,” or WON TON.
Cryptic crosswords have evolved separately on either side of the Atlantic, but the conventions are very similar. Where the differences matter, it is noted in this guide. Indian cryptic conventions are very close to British conventions.
If you’re new to cryptic crosswords, hints can be a big help. There are two types of hints you can ask for. You can be shown the division between the two parts of the clue and you can be shown the type of the clue. Simply select a clue and tap the light bulb icon at the top of the screen.
You will see divisions indicated by the ⁞ symbol in the examples below. Note that some (rare) clues do not have a division. More on this later.
There are eight main types of cryptic wordplay.
Double Definitions: In a double definition, the clue provides two exact definitions for the same word, though the meanings and possibly pronunciations are different. For example, the word SUPPLY might get one definition meaning “provide” and another meaning “in a supple manner.”
Example: Eastern European ⁞ staff (4)
Charades: In a charade, the clue adds words and/or letters together, in the order given. Sometimes single letters are indicated by common ways to shorten words, such as D being clued by “Democrat” or “down” or “bad grade.” (In the explanation, this will be indicated by a plus sign.)
Example: Woodworker⁞’s⁞ fish come in (9)
Deletions: In a deletion, the clue removes part of a word or phrase; some removal will be indicated, directly or indirectly. Usually the specific letter(s) will be indicated by a clue word, though sometimes indicating the removal of the front, middle, or back letter(s) will be indicated. (In the explanation, this will be indicated by lowercasing the deleted letters in an uppercase word.)
Example: Throw pepper out in hasty ⁞ attack (4)
Homophones: In a homophone, the answer sounds like another word or phrase; something will indicate an audible alteration. Words like “aloud” or “from a speaker” are likely to be found next to the word to be pronounced. If the clue ends with a question mark you’re probably constructing an uncommon, possibly odd phrase that sounds like the answer, such as in the second example below. A rare clue might reference a language or dialect, requiring you to pronounce the word appropriately to yield the proper answer. The third example below takes advantage of the Cockney accent dropping initial H sounds on words. (In the explanation, a homophone is indicated by quotation marks.)
Example: In a comment, help ratify ⁞ trigonometric function (6)
Example: “Oof!” Crew heard ⁞ “Touch Me” group? (4)
Example: Cockney put on ⁞ trees (4)
Hidden Words: In a hidden word, the answer is part of a word or phrase; an indicator will tell you the way it’s hidden. An indicator like “part of,” “showing,” or even “in” would tell you to read the answer forward in a section of a word or phrase, but one like “initially” would tell you to read only the first letters, while “odd” might tell you to read only the odd letters. In American cryptics, a phrase such as “first,” “at first,” “at ends,” or even “introductions” would be sufficient to indicate that you should take the first or last letters; British cryptics, where they are called Acrostic clues, generally have less variety in these indicators. (In the explanation, this will be indicated by uppercase letters among lowercase ones.)
Example: The artist displays ⁞ courage (5)
Anagrams: In an anagram, the clues scramble a word or words; part of the clue will suggest mixing, damaging, fixing, movement, inferiority, or insanity of the part to be scrambled. (In the explanation, this will be indicated by an asterisk.)
Example: Runs at disoriented ⁞ ringbearer? (6)
In American cryptics, you will always be anagramming letters that you are given directly in the clue. For example, take the clue Rotates a disoriented ringbearer? in which you are supposed to figure out that “rotates” means TURNS and you should thus anagram TURNS A to yield SATURN. This is called an “indirect anagram” and it is strongly frowned upon in American cryptics. But, you will see them in British cryptics.
Reversals: In a reversal, the clue reverses a word or words; something will tell you to turn the letters around. Down entries will go up, and Across entries will go right-to-left. (In the explanation, this will be indicated by a < symbol.)
Example: Be ⁞ sinful in reflection (4)
Containers: In a container (sometimes called a sandwich), the clue has one part wrap another; an indication will place the inner part inside the outer one. (In the explanation, this will be indicated by square brackets.)
Example: Scent ⁞of⁞ rag in European nation (9)
Abbreviations: Cryptic constructors often need to refer to single letters and small groups of letters, and they often do so by using abbreviations and oblique references. The constructor will choose the indicator which best fits the surface sense they’re aiming for. For example, the letter D might be indicated by Democrat (as you might find after a congressman’s name), by 500 (as in the Roman numeral), by note (as in the musical key), or perhaps ABC sequel? (as in the fourth letter of the alphabet). An O might be Oh, Blood type, or maybe Zero, Nothing, Egg, or Circle. Similarly, hospital line is an IV, and West Coast city might be LA. Similarly, West Coast city might be LA, and hospital line is an IV. Since a sign with just an H on it indicates a hospital, the word hospital can be used to indicate an H.
Sometimes, an abbreviation is indicated by a word like short or brief. This can be done because the abbreviation is uncommon or for better surface meaning. For example, you might see either yard or short yard for YD. Similarly, short division could be DIV while long division, for example could be OPERATION, and short, long division could be OP. You will not see something like short stack for S because S is not an abbreviation for stack (it would have to be top of stack). Something like briefcase for C is right out, but it also has another problem — a word will never be split like that.
Be alert for variations based on the origin of a cryptic. In the US, Capitol might be DC and State, shortly might be KS or NY. These are less likely to be used outside the US, but they’re still fair game. In contrast, while you might see Capitol representing ND (for New Delhi) and State representing UP or MP (for Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) in Indian cryptics, it’s very unlikely you’d see those outside of India, even with a qualifier.Pound can represent LB (as in the unit of weight), but a British cryptic might use it to represent L (as in the currency symbol). Similarly, Penny in the US might be C (as in the cent sign) whereas old Penny in the UK might be D (an abbreviation derived from the Latin word denarius).
Homophones: A fair number of letters have words that homophones of them and you’ll see these used occasionally, without any homophone indicator, as in Cue for Q.
Directions: A compass point or direction can be N, E, S, W or even NE, NW, etc. A direction can be one of those or also U, D, L, or R for Up, Down, Left, and Right. Occasionally, you’ll see a clue which tells you of a specific direction, like DC to SF direction for W. Of course, constructors love misdirection — sometimes Left means a reversal and sometimes it means the letter L.
Foreign words: If you see a reference to a country or language, there’s a good chance it’s clueful. The Italian is probably IL, LA, or LE, but could also be I, LO, or GLI (yeah, there are lots of ways to say the in Italian). You’re less likely to see foreign words as answers, but a word like British in a clue might indicate the answer you’re looking for is COLOUR instead of COLOR.
Sub-words: It’s fairly common to extract letters from words. The use of “First” was discussed above, but you’ll also encounter tricks like Heart of Dixie for X, Lincoln Center for C, The Fourth of July for Y, and Beethoven’s Fifth for H. Phrases like “a bit of,” “briefly,” and “most of” might indicate that you’re taking just a little or most of a word. Bit of Honey is H and Head of lettuce is L, while Most of all is AL.
Misleading usage: A fairly common trick in cryptic clues is a word that appears to be one part of speech but is actually another. In this clue, light looks like a verb when it’s actually a noun.
Example: Large light-up computer (4)
In addition to the eight main clue types, there are other things to watch out for.
Combination Clues: Sometimes, one clue type is not enough. A combination clue combines several operations, such as a container with a deletion.
Example: Gelatin dish ⁞features⁞ a seasoning cut short (5)
Continued Clues: Sometimes a clue is continued into another clue, or one clue provides the answers to multiple entries in the puzzle. If the type of a clue has a clue type plus “Continued,” this clue probably supplies the answer to another entry in the puzzle. If the type of a clue is simply “Continued,” you must look elsewhere for the rest of what you need. (In the explanations, the first clue in the set of clues will generally contain the complete explanation.)
Literal Clues: In a special type of clue called an &lit the clue’s definition and cryptic halves are the same (“and literally so”). You may also see the term all-in-one for these types of clues. This is usually indicated by an exclamation point at the end of the clue. An &lit clue does not have a division.
Example: Leaders of Iranian mosques and Muslim sects! (5)
A few clues might use tricks you don’t often see. Don’t let the variety here scare you — you’ll see these rarely and it’ll feel good when you figure them out.
Cross-references: A Cross-reference clue is straightforward. One clue refers to another, such as Where 7-Across works. What makes this tricky is that sometimes you can’t tell what is and isn’t a cross-reference. In the clue 7 and 13, does the clue refer to two other clues 7 and 13, to the answers to those clues, or is the answer simply 20? It’s up to you to figure out.
Cryptic Definitions: Seen in British, but very rarely in American, cryptics, a cryptic definition consists of only a definition, but one that is cryptically (though fairly) misleading. It is a frequently harder cousin of the ? clue in American-style crosswords. A cryptic definition clue usually does not have a division, but it can if a cryptic definition is paired with another clue type.
Example: Low digit (3)
Example: New Jersey (4)
Example: His, for example (9)
Instructions: An Instruction clue requires you to follow instructions on what to do with words or letters to reveal the answer. For example, you might be told to swap letters, rotate the letters in a word from one end to the other, or perform some other operation on the words or letters.
Example: Bohemian⁞/Yugoslavian treaty accord reviewed, alphabetized initially (4)
Letter Shift: A letter shift (sometimes called a migration) moves a letter from one position in a word to another, such as moving the second O in POOL to get POLO. (In the explanation, this will be marked by bars around the moved letters.)
Example: Steps ⁞ in area, once the leader reaches the end (5)
Palindromes: A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same forwards and backwards. The cryptic part of the clue will generally just clue you in that it is a palindrome. (In the explanation, this will be marked with > and < symbols.)
Example: Fast vehicle ⁞ heading back and forth (7)
Reverse Definitions: In a reverse definition clue, the clue is actually an answer clued by an entry in the grid. Perhaps the most famous reverse definition clue is Gegs for SCRAMBLED EGGS. Reverse definition clues almost always have a second clue type and frequently, but not always, are followed by a ?. A variant is the Double Reverse Definition, in which the clue contains a straight definition and the answer, and the entry in the grid is a second clue, usually not definitional.
Example: Team? (9)
Example: Pie filling ⁞for⁞ team? (9)
Substitutions: A substitution clue switches one or more letters for some others, such as from PARKS to PARIS. (In the explanation, this will be marked by a slash between the letters to be switched.)
Example: North Dakota city ⁞ fellow who’s silent, but not for me (5)
Spoonerisms: Spoonerisms, named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, switch the initial sounds of two words in a phrase, such as from “boater Mike” to MOTORBIKE. (In the explanation, this will be marked with quotes, as in a homophone.)
Example: Body parts ⁞with⁞ no tails, per the Reverend (8)
Theme Clues: Part of the theme of the puzzle. A theme clue can be a description of the theme, an instruction needed to finish the puzzle, or even something that will only make sense after you have figured out the theme of the puzzle. A clue can be both a theme clue and another clue type. A clue which is just a theme clue does not have a division. Note: theme clues are not always marked, particularly if the theme clues are obviously thematic and are another clue type.
Wordplay: Similar to an instruction clue, a wordplay clue uses some form of wordplay to clue you in to the word. The wordplay might refer to the letters in the answer or to how it’s pronounced. For example, in Weight’s loud center, wrapped around on board, the word “Weight” has a LONG A in the center. Wrapping that around yields ALONG, clued by “on board.” Wordplay clues are usually self-indicating, which means there may not be a word or phrase which explicitly indicates that wordplay is at work.
Example: Lucille Ball has five ⁞ trains (3)
There’s a special type of cryptic crossword called a variety cryptic, which breaks one or more of the regular conventions. For example, you might need to drop a letter from some of the answers before entering them in the grid. Most variety cryptics will have explicit (but not necessarily simple) instructions as to what to do to solve the puzzle. Make sure to read them carefully. If the puzzle doesn’t have instructions, figuring them out is part of the puzzle, but at least you’ll know that you have something to figure out.
There’s no limit to the imagination of cryptic crossword constructors, so you’ll always find new tricks employed in puzzles, particularly in British cryptics. You may never see these types of clues, but a few examples will help you see how wild things can get.
Cryptic Double Definition: A double definition clue where one definition is straight and one is a cryptic or punny definition. In American cryptics, you’ll see a question mark at the end of the clue and it will just be called a double definition.
Double Duty: Rare and generally frowned upon, double duty clues are seen occasionally in British cryptics. A cousin of the &lit clue, a double duty clue, which always has another clue type, is a clue in which the cryptic part and the definition part almost, but not completely, overlap. For example, the cryptic part might be all of the words but the definition part is all but one of the words. When a double duty clue has the entire clue as the definition but only part of the clue as word play it is called a semi-&lit clue. (In the explanation, the division will indicate where the overlapping starts or stops.)
Example: Large ink ⁞ play (4,4)
Example: Calamitous regal kin ⁞ drama (4,4)
Example: Regal kin play! (4,4)
Non-word Homophones: Homophones of partial words are not allowed in American cryptics, but are seen sometimes in British cryptics.
Example: Fashion ⁞ sounds like a pain after Maxine’s opening (4)
Three-part Clues: A clue with two definitions and one cryptic part, or one definition and two cryptic parts, or even three definitions.
Example: Golfer Ernie ⁞ trains ⁞ headless sea snakes (3)
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