Tag Archives: Cryptic Crosswords

This acrostic brain teaser (9)

A few weeks ago I introduced a series on Crosswords – how they work and how to solve them. This next post in the series explains the basic nature of cyptic crossword clues and deals with the most basic type of clue in the process. In future posts I’ll look at other types of clue, including ideas how to spot them and of course solve them!

The idea of a cryptic crossword is that each clue guides you to the answer in two different ways. Where those two paths meet, you’ll find the answer. There are occasional exceptions to this, most often marked by a ? or ! at the end of the clue, but we’ll look at those another time. For now, assume that each clue is made up of two parts. These two parts might not be equal in length, but think of them as two halves to the clue.

The simplest type of cryptic clue is two synonyms for the word placed side by side. For example if the clue is…

Shut nearby (5)

… the answer would be close since it means both shut and nearby. Note the clues pick up on two different meanings of the answer word in this instance, whereas in the title of this piece, both halves of the clue and the answer all have the same meaning.

Two-word clues are almost always this type of clue, but they can be longer and still fit this pattern. The trick is then to decide where the division falls between the two ‘halves’ of the clue.

What the bride wore to practise (5)

Here, the division comes before the word to, and the answer is train, meaning both something a bride might wear, and the verb to practise.

In a well-written clue, the two halves aren’t obviously separate and the clue looks like a sentence in its own right.

Line of argument (3)

for example, looks like a single simple clue meaning an element of an argument, but in fact the two halves are line and argument leading you to the answer row. The word of is technically extraneous, which will upset the purists, but happens occasionally.

Spotting synonym clues

The vast majority of clues will have at least one half that is a simple synonym, so spotting these clues is more a question of ruling out other types than of ruling in this type. However, shorter clues are the most likely candidates, so start with those if you are looking for this type of clue.


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Angry exclamation is a puzzle (9)

My parents gave me the bug for these tricky word puzzles from an early age and although I don’t get many chances, I love to tuck into a crossword when the opportunity arises. We started with “simple” crosswords, where the clue was usually a synonym or a category for the answer (Tree (3) might be ash or elm, for example). But simple crosswords are can be both more frustrating and less thrilling than cryptic ones. With a cryptic clue, once you get it, you usually know you’ve got it, whereas with a simple clue it could almost always be several possibilities and you have to wait to get a word that crosses it before you know for sure.

It occurs to me that most of those who love language, love crosswords and that for those who love language and don’t love crosswords, it’s often because they can’t do them. Which means they are sorely missing out on something they might otherwise love. So when I haven’t got any interesting grammar for you on a Thursday, I’ve decided I’ll share the joy of crosswords, and maybe convert a few more lexophiles to their pleasures. Today, some basics to get you started.

  1. Each clue is followed by a number in brackets, indicating how many letters the answer contains. If the answer is more than one word, the numbers will indicate the letters for each word, separated by a comma (or a hyphen if the words are hyphenated).
  2. The clues are split into Across and Down clues, depending on the direction of the word in the answer grid.
  3. Answers (and the associated clues) are numbered consecutively from left to right and top to bottom of the grid, with a number in the first box of the answer. Where an Across and a Down clue share this box, they will share a number, but otherwise each number will only be used for one clue – Across or Down.
  4. Clues are referred to by number and direction, for example “One Across” even if there is no “One Down”. These can be abbreviated to 1a or 1d etc.
  5. Getting any answer provides assistance in others as the words intersect and share letters. This is known as “Help” and may mean that eventually another clue can be guessed from the letters available without reference to the clue.
  6. In a good setter’s crossword, no clue word is redundant, so if a possible answer only uses part of the clue, solvers should use caution in filling that answer in.
  7. There is no proper order to answer the clues in a crossword. For example, some solvers prefer to work carefully through the Across clues and then through the Downs, others hop about at random, or choose the long / short /multi-word clues first, and others still go through the Across clues until they get one, and then use the Help provided by that answer to try to the Down clues which intersect with it.


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