Solving tips

Books, blogs and practice

This is partly repetition of advice I've already given, but it's important. Learning to solve cryptic crosswords is a bit like learning a language. You need the right mixture of textbook (How to solve books) and language lab/reading room (trying to solve puzzles). You should spend most time in the lab, but read the textbook and review it from time to time. The other point is that after you've solved your daily puzzle (or solved whatever clues you can), you should check the appropriate solving blog. The three blogs listed on the Puzzles page cover the five "broadsheet" puzzles which are the main focus of serious cryptic crossword solving because they're by and large the best puzzles of their kind available (and for daily paper cryptics I'd extend that best to the whole world, not just the UK). A puzzle in another paper may be easier, but until the other papers have blogs, you'll learn more by tackling a harder puzzle which is blogged. The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times are slightly easier than the other papers, so start with one of those if you find the others (Times, Independent, Guardian) too hard at the moment.

Expect the unexpected

Many of the suggestions below will help a lot of the time, but not necessarily all the time. Cryptic setters love to do things you don't expect - such as writing hidden word clues for 11-letter words, or writing two-word clues which are cryptic definitions rather than double definitions. It's worth knowing that 'flower'=river, but once you start expecting it to do so, you'll fall for the double-bluff (or should that be zero-bluff?) clue where 'flower' is a definition for something like 'daisy'.

The long and the short of it

Try the short words first

Short clues

Two-word clues are extremely likely to be double definitions.

Short and long answers

Short words are much easier to write hidden word clues for than long ones. Long words or phrases are quite often clued by anagrams.

Crossword "facts"

Things that are true only in cryptic crosswords - or at least far more often there than in the real world.

ion = charge

This one makes me quite annoyed. An ion is a charged particle. Some setters think this is the same thing as a charge.

CE = church

In crosswords, the Church of England is "CE", almost never "C of E".

EC = city

This comes from the fact that postcodes for the City of London all start 'EC'.

Cryptic Crossword conventions

Me and you

In clues, "I" or "Me" = the setter, "you" = the solver (Remember who wrote the clues).

Down clues

Sometimes, clues to Down answers rely on you interpreting things as if the clue were written downwards, as well as the answer.

'Your' or 'Ones'?

Phrases you know with the word "your" in may appear with "one's" instead, such as KEEP ONE'S HAIR ON. If you try building a few grids, you'll soon find out how much easier it is if ONES is used. If the answer is such a phrase and the SI works for both versions, look at crossing answers, but expect ONES rather than YOUR about 19 times out of 20.

Things to ignore

Although most clues turn out to be written in a very precise way when you understand them properly, there are some things which you should take little notice of.

Punctuation

Some punctuation is significant, but you're often best off trying to ignore any punctuation. If you imagine reading the clue out loud, do so with completely equal gaps between words and no stress on any word.

Spacing and hyphenation differences

Whether a word is hyphenated or shown as two words depends on the dictionary you use - you might now be looking at any of a web site, web-site or website. Try not to be thrown when the clue or answer uses a form you're not used to.

Tense

The wordplay in clues usually works in the present tense, e.g. "Nothing stops Chelsea playing tie" for SHOELACE=tie - O=nothing in anag. of Chelsea, with a subtle "insertion indicator" - "stops" as in stopping a tooth. (Watch out for imaginative indicators like this, especially at the Times, Guardian and Independent.) If the clue had "stopped" or "will stop", the logic would be just the same. As the clue is written several months before you solve it but (obviously!) read when you solve it, and you can think of the wordplay taking place at the time of writing or the time of solution, any of the tenses make sense. Present tense is the norm, but you'll see future or past occasionally because they improve the surface reading or are needed to make the wordplay fit.

Apparent phrases

Here's a Times Clue (18/4/2007): Primitive dwelling accommodates working class assembly (8). The answer is CONCLAVE = assembly. The wordplay is C(ON=working, CL=class)AVE. In this clue, "working class" is an example of what my Times Championship rival Mark Goodliffe once called "lift and separate" in a report for the Times for the Times blog. You have to break this phrase down into its component words and treat them separately. By contrast, "primitive dwelling" means exactly what it says - the external CAVE. Inevitably there will be other times when it looks as if you need to treat the words separately, but in fact you need to use the phrase.

Be grid-centric

You can do this in several ways:

Clues joined by ... ellipses

"Ellipsis" is the fancy name for the three dots sometimes used to end a sentence (and "ellipses" is the plural of this word, as well as of "ellipse"). Sometimes, one clue ends with an ellipsis and the next one starts with one. The most common reason is that the surface meanings of the two clues are related in such a way that joining them in this way makes them look connected. It usually turns out, however, that the two clues work just as they would have done without this device.

Sometimes, the two clues overlap. For instance, you may need to use the first one or two words of the second clue as part of the first one. I can only recall seeing one pair of clues where both extended past the ellipsis into the other member of the pair.

At the time of writing, Guardian setters seem to be running an unofficial competition to see who can join the most successive - If you see sets of three or more clues with ellipses, the third and later clues in the set may continue from the first clue, not the second.

The initial capital letter trick

Most cryptic clues, like English sentences, start with a capital letter. This simple fact is often exploited by setters. Sometimes they use it to avoid emphasising the initial capital letter of a word which is a proper noun, by using that word as the first word of the clue. Sometimes they do the opposite, and place an ordinary noun at the beginning of the clue, because they would like you to think it is a proper noun.

Find your definition

A major part of the task of solving a cryptic clue is correctly identifying the definition. Remember that nearly all (I'd guess at least 95%) of clues have a definition which starts at the beginning or ends at the end of the clue. If you're stuck, try interpreting the first or last one, then two, then three, (etc. etc.) words as a possible definition, and see if you can make sense of the rest as wordplay. In most puzzles you can use a lazier method and just try the first or last one or two words - one of these choices will often account for at least 80% of the definitions.

Have you made a mistake?

If you're completely stuck, a few answers short of finishing a puzzle, look at the answers you've already written in, to make sure you haven't made a spelling mistake or entered a 'red herring' - an alternative answer which seems to fit the clue. I see quite a few requests for help with clues where the checking letters supplied turn out to include ones from mistaken entries, and correcting them is enough for the baffled solver to see the answer.

Brackets in 'cryptic logic'

Remember the principle in mathematics, that calculations in brackets are done first, so that 3+(4 times 5) = 23 and (3+4) times 5 = 35 ? Some cryptic clues require you to work out where their 'brackets' are.

Example: Cross or embarrassed holding silver, given short measure (7) 
Answer: ENRAGED - Ag = Silver inside Red = embarrassed, next to en = short measure (in printing). Here, the clue with brackets would be: "Cross or (embarrassed holding silver), given short measure", not (e.g.) "Cross or embarrassed holding (silver, given short measure)", which would give something like "RAGENED", which is not a genuine synonym for 'cross'.

The transition from learning to instinct

When you're a beginner at cryptic crosswords, you need to think about most clues very carefully. Gradually, you'll learn to recognise bits of cryptic jargon and some of the words which often imply a particular clue type. You'll also remember particular clues and recognise them when you see them again, whether in the same form or a slightly different version.

After a while, what you learn will enable you to solve some clues "instinctively" - you'll just read the clue and see what the answer is, with very little conscious thought. If you see people solving cryptic puzzles very quickly (say 5 minutes for a daily newspaper puzzle), much of their solving will be done in this way. This causes problems when an "expert" solver tries to explain how to solve cryptic puzzles - their chief method of solving doesn't work very well until you've been doing cryptic puzzles for quite a long time. The expert can usually tell you why the answer to a cryptic clue is the right answer, but you can be pretty sure that this explanation has little to do with the thought processes that led him to that answer. It is usually "him", despite the stuff in the Guardian (25 June 1999) about brain mapping, which reckons that "women are better at processing complex verbal information". Perhaps cryptic clues are actually "simple verbal information"?


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