Thursday, 27 February 2014

Approaching a blank grid

It can be pretty intimidating: a blank grid, an unfamiliar setter in an unfamiliar newspaper, the clues make no sense. No wonder most solvers never graduate from concise to cryptic.

These are my tips for approaching an empty puzzle:

1. Always look at the long ones first. For reasons to do with grid composition, the setter will have written these first, so they will often be the cleverest or most amusing clues. If you get it straight away - you will have plenty of crossing letters to work with. If there is a theme to the puzzle, then the long answers will usually be involved. 

2. Look at clues made up of multiple words. This should be indicated in brackets (6,2,7). Think what the small words are likely to be to get a sense of the likely rhythm of the phrase. The most common two letter words are the prepositions: 'of', 'on', 'in', etc. The most common three letter words are 'the', 'and' and 'for'. 

3. Try to spot any anagram or acronym indicators. Anything that is 'jiggled' or 'reshaped' or 'off' or 'out' is probably an anagram. Any clue looking for 'heads', 'leads', 'starts' or telling you to look at words 'initially' or 'for starters' could be indicating an acronym.

4. Any clue containing the Setter's pseudonym often has I or ME forming part of its solution. The word 'setter' itself also has this connotation, though watch out - it can also denote a dog or even the sun!

5. Ask for help. I bet the bartender in your local knows his way around a cryptic clue. Especially if he has to do the Tuesday daytime shift.   

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Acronym

Acronyms pop up about as frequently as hidden words. You will usually find one in a puzzle of standard difficulty. Remember to look for the definition and indicator. In acronym type clues you are being told to take the first letter of a few words in the clue and combine them to make your answer. Look for indicators such as 'initially', 'heads', 'starts', 'commences', 'begins':

8. Prime Minister seen by heads of Blue Labour, alienating in Rutshire (5)
8. Asian country idiots not dealing in apricots initially. (5)
8. Starts to rain outside, you are late to Yoga - an outdated system? (7)
8. The beginnings of an intelligent race hampered early after dozens support stupid people (8)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Hidden Words and Reversals

Among the more frustrating of clue types is the hidden word clue. Frustrating in that the answer is literally in the question and I always get annoyed with myself if I don't spot it right away (invariably I don't).

As with all cryptic clues there will be a definition and a secondary indicator. The secondary indicator will contain a word or words in which the answer is hidden and information that tells you where to look. Often this information is just the word 'in' or 'of'. As in these simple hidden word clues:

6. Conjunction of landslides (3)
6. Scarcity from blackness (4)
6. Finishes in Friendship (4)
6. Number of weights (5)
6. Gun sheath in upholstery (7)

These are the simplest of hidden word clues because the hidden word is hidden entirely within one other word and you can hear the hidden word when you read the clue aloud (with the possible exception of 'ENDS' in 'friendship' for any phoneticians that are reading). A level of elegance can be added by hiding the answer in a word that shares the letters but not the sound of the word. An effective way of doing this is to stretch the solution across two words.

6. Unity in honesty (3)
6. Look for wire in hearthside (5)
6. Flesh of some atheists (4)
6. Beginnings of Kangaroo Tsar (5)

In a quick crossword, a clue such as:

6. One of the seven Pleiades (7)

is essentially unsolvable without a reference book.

But a cryptic can give you a fairer chance to get to an obscure word by making it a hidden word clue:

6. One of seven sisters seen in hipster open-day (7)

This clue does not require you to know the names of the sisters from Greek Mythology. If you can identify the clue as a hidden word clue, then a couple of crossing letters in the grid should enable you to make a reasonable guess.

Finally and fiendishly, all of the above can apply to Reversals - answers hidden back to front. Look for indicators that you should read part of a word or words backwards. Have a go at these:

6. Cover back in Antediluvian shelter (3)
6. Joint returns from seen kindness (4)
6. Delphiniums in a growbag that, viewed from a particular direction, contains something living (8)

Monday, 20 January 2014


If the letters of one word or phrase can be reshuffled to make another word or phrase then the two are said to be anagrams.

Anagrams are your way in to a cryptic crossword. There will always be one or two pure anagram clues in a puzzle. Once you know how to recognise this type of clue, they are easy to spot and should be fairly easy to solve. You will have encountered anagrams in your simple crossword, usually as one part of a double definition type clue:

5. Chief; dealer (anag.) (6)

A cryptic anagram clue will contain the same information: definition; word (or words) to be rearranged; anagram indicator. For a refresher on definitions and cryptic definitions please follow their links. Today we will concentrate on the anagram indicator.  

5. Chief dealer reshuffled (6)

Elegance is achieved by marrying the anagram indicator (reshuffled) with the word to be rearranged (dealer).

An anagram indicator can be any word indicating movement or arrangement or peculiarity. It can invite you to look at letters or merely indicate that a word or phrase is 'out' or 'off'.

Knowing the length of an answer (indicated in brackets at the end of a clue to save you the bother of counting the squares) makes it easy to check whether a word or phrase within a clue is a candidate for an anagram. I have written a basic crossword that contains only anagrammatical clues for you to practice identifying the three parts of the anagram clue.

Finnginn's anagram crossword

Remember: definition, anagram, indicator. All three must be there. The definition must be at the beginning or end of the clue. The indicator must be beside the anagram. Let me know how you get on!

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Secondary Indicator

Most cryptic clues will be made up of a definition or a cryptic definition combined with a secondary indicator. The definition part of the clue will always be at the beginning or the end of the clue and may be a word or a phrase.

The secondary indicator is another way to get to the same answer.
At its simplest, the secondary indicator will be another definition (see earlier post - the double definition clue). At its next level of complexity the secondary indicator will require the use of a single technique to get you to the answer. The most complex indicators require you to use a range of different techniques and decode instructions about how to combine them.

In an elegantly written clue, the setter's misdirection should make it hard to spot immediately which part of the clue is the definition and which the secondary indicator.

4. Middle Eastern terrorists on BBC panel show (5)

In this example of a simple charade clue the definition could plausibly be: 'Middle', 'Middle Eastern', 'Middle Eastern terrorists', 'show', 'panel show' or 'BBC panel show'.

Note that the definition will never be *'terrorists' or *'terrorists on BBC' because the definition must start or conclude a clue. 

Some common techniques that will be explained in coming posts:

The homophone.
The Spoonerism.
The charade.
The deletion.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Cryptic Definition

The cryptic definition is a kind of riddle. The setter is a riddler attempting to misdirect you. Your first reading of the clue may well be the literal one and if so it will definitely be the wrong one. I struggled with the following clue for so long that it has burned itself into my memory as the archetypal cryptic definition:

3. Where people go to make pots on wheels (6)

I still couldn't get clay pots and pottery wheels out of my head when someone came along and casually filled in CASINO while I'd gone to empty some ashtrays. (You could smoke in pubs in those days - it was a long time ago - it still hurts).

Misdirection is the key to a cryptic definition. When you read the clue first - you are put in mind of something that is not the answer. Try to avoid the initial literal meaning of the words, what else could they mean? In the example above, forget potteries. Where else could pots (of money) be made on (roulette) wheels?

Have a go at these:

3. Release John (5)

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Double Definition Clue

All quick crossword compilers secretly want to be cryptic crossword compilers. So you will often find the double definition clue in both types of crossword.

The extra information provided by a second definition gives the solver a helping hand. In a simple category item definition clue such as:

2. Vehicle (3)

the solver has no way to choose between solutions CAR, BUS and VAN until other solved clues in the grid provide a helpful consonant.  

The double definition clue solves this problem and is the ancestor of the cryptic clue. The solution is defined in two ways. In a simple crossword these definitions will usually be helpfully separated by a semi-colon or an em-dash:

2. Front (military slang); Vehicle (3)

A cryptic compiler writing a double definition clue for the same answer would leave out the helpful information and punctuation and perhaps throw in a little extra misdirection by making the first word more ambiguous:

2. Lead vehicle (3)

When you see a two word clue in a cryptic crossword, you should mentally fill in the semi-colon. You are not being asked to find a solution for the whole clue. Rather, you are being asked to find the same solution for each half of the clue.