Clue Types

How important is this section?

All sites or books introducing people to cryptic crosswords include a list of the clue types used by puzzle setters. Often this list is a major part of the information provided. I think this can make beginners worry too much about clue types when trying to solve puzzles.

It's a bit like the situation you get with books of birds or plants. Often, the colour pictures of various species form the bulk of the book, and it's very tempting to try to identify something in the wild by just looking at the pictures until you find a likely suspect. Often there's a rather unappealing section at the beginning of the book, in close type with a few black and white line drawings, which tells you what information to look for to decide what you're looking at without looking at all the pictures. This information is used by the real experts to save a lot of time and trouble.

After you've read this section and tackled a few puzzles, I hope you'll agree that once you've understood how a few clue-types work, you don't need to remember the full list of types by heart in order to solve cryptic clues. Let's make that a general principle. You don't need to learn anything by heart - I'm a championship-winning solver and I have no little black book of facts to revise just before a championship. The best way to train your brain to remember the things you need to remember most is quite simply to do lots of puzzles.

When you've understood the material in this page, I hope you'll also look at the next one, which contains advice about solving puzzles. That's supposed to be the equivalent of the chapter most people don't read in the nature guide.

One reason to be wary of classifying clues by type is the fact that clue types are often combined. For instance, a more advanced version of the hidden word clue is where the hidden word is reversed. I'll try to show some examples of this kind of clue below, but I can't cover all the possibilities.

Clue structure

It's time to revive the description of cryptic clues that I mocked in the introduction. It is perfectly true that most cryptic clues consist of two parts - a definition ("def") and wordplay. These may be joined by a linking word or phrase, and the def and wordplay may be in either order.

In the list below, the cryptic clue types which do not have this structure are: Cryptic definitions, Double definitions, all-in-ones, and some novelty clues.

A fairness note: Most Ximenean setters agree that in clues with this structure, the def and wordplay may not overlap, and any linking word or phrase should be short and mean "is the same as" or something similar. Clues without any link are often preferred to those with a link. Words in the clue which aren't part of the definition, wordplsy or a reasonable link should not be there.

The list

Here are the clue types you are likely to meet in standard cryptics. The list starts with those which I think are easiest for the beginner to understand. This doesn't necessarily mean that clues of these types are easy to solve. If you look at other lists of cryptic clue types, the list of 'species' is likely to be different.

Hidden words, acrostics and other letter sequences

In clues of these types, the answer is visible in the clue, once you work out how to find it. The simplest of these clue types is the hidden word, where the clue contains the answer, normally split across one or more word breaks.
 

Example: The answer is easy in clues of this type (4). 
Answer: SOFT, which is hidden in 'clues of this type'. Note the slight disguising of the definition ("easy") by using the phrase 'the answer is'. Statements like this are often accepted as an exception to the 'no superfluous material' principle.

Hidden word clues are usually easy to solve once you've spotted that a clue is of this type (and doing so is often easy as well, because the wordplay has to include something to indicate that part of a sequence of words is needed). For this reason, some setters restrict themselves to a maximum of one hidden word clue per puzzle. Having the answer hidden backwards can add an extra twist, but because the reversal and hiding both need to be indicated in the wordplay, these clues can be even easier to spot once you've seen a few.

The clue type often called 'acrostic' also displays the answer in a fairly simple way. An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of the lines, taken in sequence, spell out a name or message. For an example, try the end of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. As many people have pointed out, Carroll would probably have been one of the best cryptic setters in history if he had been alive at the right time. Getting right back to the subject, in this clue type, the answer is simply the initial letters of a sequence of words.

Example: Carpet leaders of men after transgressions (3).
Answer: MAT - initial letters of men after transgressions.

More subtle versions of this clue type might use the last, second, or middle letters of the words.

Double or multiple definitions

These clues give you two or more alternative definitions for the same word. Usually, all of them are definitions or synonyms that you can confirm using a dictionary or thesaurus, but sometimes some or all of them are cryptic definitions. If it's fair to use a single cryptic definition, it's fair to give you a cryptic definition and other definition(s).
 
 

Example: Left red wine in harbour (4). 
Answer: PORT, which is left (at sea), a kind of red wine, and a harbour.
Example: Tea shop (5). 
Answer: GRASS - a slang synonym for both words - tea (=marijuana) and shop (=betray to the police). (Shamelessly pinched from Azed)
 

Anagrams

Possibly the best-known cryptic clue type. As the Greek origin of the word indicates, taking the letters of a word or phrase and rearranging them to produce another word or phrase is a very old game.

Cryptic clues using anagrams normally include some indication of rearrangement - a word like 'sort', 'arrange', or 'twisted', often called the anagram indicator. Some cryptic crossword buffs are capable of spending many hours arguing about what constitutes a fair AI.
 
 

Example: Doctor Watson's kit - or bits of modern office kit (12) 
Answer: WORKSTATIONS - anag. of "Watson's kit or". "Doctor" needs to be understood as a verb meaning "to tamper with".

Cryptic definitions

Another contender for the "best-known clue type" award. Cryptic definitions are definitions written in some deceitful way.  Many are effectively riddles, others use unexpected word meanings.
 

Example: A wicked thing
Answer: CANDLE - This clue is an old chestnut - I don't know who thought of it first. The trick is in using 'wicked' to mean 'furnished with a wick', in the same way as 'tented' in the phrase 'tented village'. The use of 'flower=river' (=something that flows) is another example of the kind of reinterpretation of words often practised by setters.
Example: Bottom-lover (7)
Answer: TITANIA (see Midsummer Night's Dream) Setters often like to use some mild double entendre to make you think of the wrong kind of answer.
Example: A jammed cylinder (5,4)
Answer: SWISS ROLL - this is another old favourite which I think a Times setter was first to find.

Setters need to take care with cryptic definition clues, as it's not unusual to find that more than one solution seems to fit the clue, and there's no way of checking from the wordplay that your answer is the only right one - compare anagram clues, where alternative answers would need to be anagrams of each other (not impossible!) rather than just have the right number of letters. Many North American cryptic setters (or their editors) refuse to use cryptic definition clues.

Homophones

These are clues based on pronounciations shared by differently spelled words. Homophone clues don't always travel well. If you're solving crosswords written for speakers of a different variety of English, you may need to remember how words are pronounced by the crossword's intended audience.

Example: Church service sounds correct (4)
Answer: RITE - pun on "right"

Charades

This is the bread-and-butter cryptic clue type - almost any word can be clued with a charade, and you may find that half the clues in a standard cryptic are pure or partial charades. The name comes from the parlour game where you try to convey a phrase like the name of a film, by giving clues to each word or syllable. For those who need a more modern illustration, the last round of the BBC's They think it's all over was just a game of charades played very quickly.

A charade clue just breaks up the answer into manageable parts and provides a clue for each part, usually in the same order. Having said that any word can be given a charade clue, I'll pick a random word from the dictionary (trust me!) and have a go:

Example: After operation, I consumed a pain-killing drug (6)
Answer: OPIATE - op = operation, I = I, consumed = ate. Note that different things happen to the three parts of the wordplay - "operation" is changed into a shorter form (which must be in the dictionary - converting "operation" to "oper" would be unfair), "I" stays exactly as it is, and "consumed" is changed into a synonym.

Reversals

These clues make use of the fact that some words are still words or phrases when spelt backwards. The reversal must be indicated somewhere in the wordplay, and fair-minded setters will take trouble to avoid being ambiguous about which of the two versions is the answer.

Example: Clever vehicle's reversed (5)
Answer: SMART - which is 'trams' backwards.
Ambiguous example: Market backing vehicle (4)
Answer: MART or TRAM - but you can't tell whether 'market backing' gives you TRAM, or 'backing vehicle' gives you MART. If you meet this kind of clue, all you can do is use checking letters to see which answer is right.

Subtractions

Subtraction clues form the answer by deleting one letter (or less often, several letters) from a word or phrase. Anyone who has seen Graham Rawle's Missing Consonants pictures in the Guardian will know that there are rich pickings here. Because the wordplay has to indicate the subtraction, the letter omitted is often the first, last or middle letter of the 'fodder'. By convention, the 'head' of the fodder is the first letter(s). References to headlessness and decapitation are very common, and tails and hearts go missing too.

Example: Complete boat without prow (5)
Answer: UTTER, from CUTTER. This uses a nautical alternative to 'head'.
Example: Tailless creature's soul (5)
Answer: ANIMA, from ANIMAL. Setters like to make you think that you need to consider many possibilities (here, all 6-letter creatures), when the definition is more precise than it looks (here, you just need a synonym of 'creature').
Example: Roman parent's half-hearted talk (5)
Answer: PATER - from PATTER. The T in PATER is half of the two T's in the middle of PATTER. There are quite a lot of word pairs like PATER/PATTER. Also note the use of apostrophe-S in the possessive sense in the surface meaning, but in the 'shortened is' sense in the wordplay.

Containers

These clues work by putting something inside something else to build up the answer.

Example: Statement: Last month, a cat swallowed a rat (11)
Answer: DEC,L[ARAT]ION - Dec(ember) = last month, LION = a cat, ARAT = a rat. Watch out for the times when the 'a' in phrases like 'a rat' is part of the answer. Commas and brackets are often used in this way to show how a clue works. The brackets can also be used to indicate deletions - the second subtraction example might just be shown as ANIMA(L) in notes on solutions.

All in one (& lit.) clues

"All in one" is a new name for these clues, invented by Tim Moorey in his excellent 2008 book on "How to Master the Times Crossword". I'm using it here because I think it's clearer than the old name & lit., which is short for 'and literally true'. These clues are ones where the whole clue is simultaneously wordplay and a definition of the solution. A well-known example is:

Example: I'm one involved with cost (9)
Answer: ECONOMIST - an anagram of 'I'm one' and 'cost' shown by 'involved'. The whole phrase defines the answer.

Substitutions

These clues simply describe the replacement of part of a word by something else, resulting in another word.

Example: Pieman swaps food for the French old-fashioned lover (5)
Answer: LEMAN - an archaic word for a lover. LE = "the French" replaces the pie in PIEMAN.

Moving letters

Here, the clue describes the process of moving a letter in a word to produce a different word.

Example: (Down clue) Weapon's point moved downwards to secure fruit (5)
Answer: PEARS - the S, which is the point of SPEAR (in a couple of senses), moves to the bottom of the word as entered in the grid.

Novelty clues

Another name borrowed from Tim Moorey, for clues that defy classification. These include some famous (or possibly infamous) clues.

Example: HIJKLMNO (5)
Answer: WATER or H2O, because the letters shown are those from ... H to O. As this clue has no definition at all, many modern solvers love to hate it.
Example: Eccentric as three-quarters of the characters in Fiji? (5)
Answer: DOTTY - because the i's and j's have dots. This is a fairer example, because there is a definition.

Non-cryptic clues

In some cryptic crosswords, non-cryptic clues are very occasionally used. The Times sometimes used quotation clues in the past, and also permitted (possibly still permits) the use of plain definitions - either as the ultimate bluff, or in cases where no satisfactory cryptic clue could be found. 


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