An introduction to Cryptic Crosswords
This article was first printed in October 2004 to help untrained students solve cryptics. Now that the cryptic is back, we've decided to reprint this article in an almost pristine state. This is your novice guide to cryptics.
The fundamental principle of a cryptic clue is that it is composed of two distinct parts: the definition, and the wordplay. Both parts suggest the same word, which is the solution to the clue.
The definition is like the normal crossword clue to the word, but is hidden within the clue. Fortunately, it is always located at the very beginning or very end of the clue. It is usually one word, but can be an entire phrase. The definition can be a rather vague association with the answer, as you will see in the examples provided below.
The wordplay is the rest of the clue. It clues the same answer as the definition, but using one or more forms of letter/word tricks. Good cryptic clues do not have any extra or redundant words [My clues probably will for at least the first couple of issues — InsidED]. Frasier Simpson, who writes for the Saturday Globe and Mail, is a well-known writer and follows this policy.
The rest of this article is dedicated to those tricks and examples (all from
the 3rd issue of Fall 2004, which you can find the complete puzzle on our
- Hidden Word: The simplest form of cryptic clue, where the answer is hidden right in the clue! Look at 21 Down: "Happy in the late draw (6)". Here, "happy" is the definition, and "in" is what I call the action word: the word that directs the reader how to proceed. In this case, the answer is "in" what follows. Thus, we find in bold: "the late draw", elated = happy. At this point it is important to note that "in" doesn't always mean a hidden clue. Keep reading to see why.
- Anagram: Another fairly simple cryptic clue is the anagram, where all the letters are given in the clue; you simply have to rearrange them into the answer. Try 11 Down: "Hospital got new scientist (11)". The definition is "scientist", and "new" is our action word. "New", "old", "broken", "fixed", "arranged", "mixed", etc. are all examples of action words that signify an anagram. Here, we take a new version of "hospital got" to get a "scientist". You could try rearranging those letters to see if you can find it. No? The answer is pathologist.
- Double Definition: Sometimes there is no wordplay, and the rest of the clue is simply another definition. If the clue is only two words, it is almost guaranteed to be a double definition. Sometimes longer clues will also be a definition. Now take a look at 29 Across: "Most aware of smallest angle (7)". Here, the two definitions are "most aware of" and "smallest angle". Try pausing for a moment and see if you can find the word that means both. Give up? It's... acutest.
- Synonyms: Quite often words are used in wordplay to represent other words. Often words are replaced by only letters that represent them in everyday life ("empty" becomes "e", for example). Sometimes words are used to represent themselves! Try 25 Down: "Co-op student in migrating bird (6)". Definition is "co-op student", "in" is just "in", and a migrating bird is a "tern". "in" + "tern" = intern = co-op student. Now you might be thinking: "How was I supposed to know that?" Well, you weren't exactly. There are many migrating birds. But this one happens to make the entire clue make sense, and thus you know you have the right answer.
- Homonyms: Sometimes the action word will direct you to listen to how a word is pronounced, or more often, to listen to how a synonym of a word is pronounced. The answer will be a homonym of this synonym. An example is best, so let's look at 1 Down: "Seafood body parts, say (7)". The definition is "seafood" and the action word is "say". Try "say"ing some body parts. One of them is bound to sound like a kind of seafood. Have you got it? Muscles sound like mussels, which is the answer.
- Puns: A question mark at the end of a clue means that solving this clue will either take a stretch of the imagination (further than normal!) or will actually be a pun. These are usually combined with other simple wordplays. For a great example, try 23 Down: "We hear kisses with flowers? (6)" The definition is "flowers", and the action words are "we hear". A homonym clue! What synonym for "kisses with" sounds like "flowers"? It's not too hard, now that you know it's a pun. Well, you kiss with two lips, which sounds like tulips. Get it? I hope you found that as funny as I did.
- Complete Clue: An exclamation mark informs the reader that the entire clue is both the definition and the wordplay. This is rarely used, but can be quite interesting when it is. There are no examples from that issue, but two issues before it, one of the clues was "Become a couple!? (8)". This clue was both a pun and a complete clue. Here we go, prepare to groan. Become a couple means together, but become a couple for a guy is the same as to get her!
- Construction: Now comes the complicated part. Many action words
direct you to rearrange the words or synonyms you have created using the above
rules to finish the clue. The majority of cryptic clues use this technique,
combining the above, and having other action words complete the answer.
Words like "after" direct you to move some letters to the end. "Up" can mean you write a down clue upside down. "In" can mean you physically put one word inside another. "Heartless" may mean you remove the middle letter of a word. Let's look at a big clue and see it all fall together. 20 Down: "Sun up stores chance without small check of subtleties (7)". Our definition is "subtleties". Our action words are "up", "stores" and "without". This is what we do (follow carefully): "sun up" in a down clue is "nus". "Stores" tells us we're going to put something into "nus". That something is "chance without small check". A small check is "ch", a standard abbreviation. So "chance without ch" is "ance". Have you kept up? We "store" "ance" in "nus". Can you see where we put it? nuances = of subtleties.
That last example was just one way that cryptic clues can become quite intricate. For instance, synonyms can be combined with anagrams to create harder clues! This involves taking a synonym of a word in the clue, and then taking an anagram of the synonym to solve the clue. You will learn, only by doing, how all the clues fit together. InsidED will gladly answer any questions in the future about the grid. Until then, happy solving!