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Crossing Over to Cryptic Crosswords

A cross section of Americans and Brits would assume that we are both doing the same kind of crossword puzzles, not knowing that when crosswords crossed the ocean, they lost their cryptic quality. Recently, in our cross-cultural society, cryptic crosswords have been catching on in the United States. When unsuspecting readers first encounter them, however, they are understandably baffled -- even cross. Not knowing the rules of the game can be a terrible cross to bear. Besides, some of the clues are so convoluted they can make you cross-eyed. To help you at this crossroads, here are some across-the-board tips on how to approach this exotic form of brain game. With a few instructions, it will become apparent that the clue maker and solver need not be at cross purposes. Cross my heart -- once you have experienced the joy of solving your first cryptics, you will realize that there is no turning back. You will have crossed the crossword Rubicon.

The first thing to remember is that every cryptic crossword clue is made up of two parts, one providing a literal definition and the other a second definition involving some form of word play. It is up to you to decide (a) which definition comes first and (b) where one definition ends and the other begins. Additional obfuscation may be provided through misleading punctuation or by making verbs act like nouns and vice versa.

Next, you must decide what category of clue is being employed. There are eight basic types of cryptic clues which may be used alone or in combination with each other. In addition, devices such as abbreviations, foreign words, and puns may be employed. But we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.


In anagram clues, the wordplay half of the clue is a rearrangement of all the letters in the answer. The scrambled letters must be directly preceded or followed by an anagram indicator -- a word or phrase that hints at the mixing, such as crazy, out of control, strange, wild, troubled. Some anagram indicators tell you what to do with the adjacent word, as in model, doctor, transform, change, fix. The possibilities for anagram indicators are unlimited. The puzzle maker will try to find a word that fits in with the little story, known as the surface reading, of the clue. Here are some examples.

Saves broken containers (5)

The wordplay, broken, tells you to find an anagram of saves that means containers. The answer is VASES. The word saves might also be an anagram indicator but since the answer has 5 letters, broken could not be its anagram.

Order sent home (4)

When you order the letters in sent for a 4-letter word meaning home, you get NEST. The literal definition part of the clue can often be as misleading as the word play part.

Tame mutinous sailor (4)

By now you have probably been able to figure out that the answer is MATE, a mutinous version of tame that means sailor.

Often, the anagram is composed of more than one word . Here is an example.

Cross "t," dot "I" -- same as before (5)

Cross is the anagram indicator. Rearrange t dot I to get a word meaning the same as before. The answer is DITTO.


In a charades clue, the clue breaks the answer into parts that have meanings of their own. We do the same thing when we act out the various parts of a word in the parlor game of Charades.

Go left for travel document (8)

Go = pass; left = port. Hence: PASSPORT

Man with painting has feeling (5)

Man = he; painting = art. Hence: HEART

Charades have no indicators. While a connecting word, such as with, or, and, may sometimes signal a charade, connecting words are not required.

Damage church with procession (5)

Damage = mar; church = ch. Hence: MARCH.

If an abbreviation (e.g., ch) is used, it must be one that appears in the dictionary.

Beg for fairy tale (7)

Fairy = imp; tale = lore. Hence: IMPLORE.



A reversal clue will always have a reversal indicator, such as going back, returning, changing direction. In a DOWN clue, the indicator might be something like going north, raising, upward bound. Note that the reversal indicator means that an adjacent word is a synonym of the looked- for word, not the word itself.

Get married when mist is rising (3)

Mist = dew. Hence: WED.

Evil One came back and endured (5)

Devil reversed is LIVED.


A Double Definition clue may be used for two words that have the same spelling but different meanings derived from different etymologies. They may or may not be pronounced alike.

Young ladies not hits (6)

The answer is MISSES.

Holds back stalks (5)

The answer, STEMS, means holds back and stalks, used as a noun.

The words may have different pronunciations.

Boot wax is East European (6)

The answer is POLISH.

Puns, a hallmark of cryptics in general, lend themselves especially well to Double Definitions. They are signaled by a question mark at the end of the clue.

Intensive questioning for a doctorate? (5,6)

Both halves of the clue describe the answer, THIRD DEGREE.


Homophones are words that sound alike, but have different spellings . A sound-alike indicator must appear next to the word that is not the answer. Such indicators include purportedly, we hear, they say, sounds like, in the auditorium, or any word or expression suggesting sound.

Type of steps that squeak (5)

STYLE (meaning type) is the answer. Stile, its homophone, means steps.



In this type of clue, the answer actually appears in the clue, hidden within other words. A Hidden Word indicator must be provided, such as running through, concealed in, enveloped by, filling, camouflaged, in part. When preceding a phrase, the indicator might be something like holding, contains, bears.

Secretly preparing rooms for guy getting married (5)

Secretly indicates that hiding in preparing rooms is the word GROOM.

Give illusion through face cover (4)

Through is the indicator that the words giVE ILlusion contain the answer, VEIL).

Exhibiting terrier in Ireland (4)

Exhibiting indicates that you can see the answer, ERIN, in the words terriER IN .


Container clues are similar to Hidden Word clues in that the answer appears explicitly in the clue. In the Container Clue, however, one whole word must be contained within another whole word .

For instance, the word PATIENTS — PA(TIE)NTS — could be clued this way:

Gasps about neckwear of people in hospital (8)


The three basic types of Deletions are beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions. The clue must contain an indicator word suggesting the deletion.

In beheadments, a word loses its first letter. This might be suggested by a phrase such as lacks a leader or loses head.

Sitting in car, loses head kissing (7)

Sparking, beheaded, becomes PARKING.

Curtailments involve removal of the last letter. The clue might be something like without end or almost.

Pups have almost all Daisy’s best features (6)

Pups = pets; have is a container indicator; almost all = al. Hence: PET(AL)S Petals are a daisy’s best features, although you were misled into thinking about Daisy the dog.

There may also be interior deletions. The word heartless often suggests deleting the middle letter of a word to get another word.

Smile a smidgen heartlessly (4)

Grain without the "a" is GRIN.


This clue, which means and literally so, is rare but especially satisfying. In such a clue the second definition is unnecessary because the clue itself is a definition of the answer. A classic example is this clue for ENRAGED. Terribly angered! (7) Terribly is both the anagram indicator and the second definition of the word. The exclamation mark is the traditional signal for an "& lit." clue.


Often the cryptic puzzle maker has no alternative but to add bits and pieces of words to complete the clue. Standard abbreviations of words are often used and require no special indicator. For example, college might signify U, gym might mean Y, doctor could be DR, Missouri might signal MO, and so on. The letter O is often suggested by love, ring or circle. Common foreign words may be used as well. French article, for instance, or the French might indicate le or la. The word one can mean the letter I.

One moans in horrid wakefulness (8)

One = I; moans in = anag. of nsomnia. Hence: INSOMNIA

Other abbreviations and symbols include Roman numerals, elemental symbols, musical terms, units of measure, units of currency, math and science terms, terms relating to time, compass points, degrees and titles, movie ratings, etc.


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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified 7/7/99