How to solve cryptic crosswords

Many Mensans who have seen my puzzles for SEMantics but who are not yet cruciverbalists express a wish to learn how to solve them, or ask how to begin learning this skill. Here I offer a brief outline of the basics.

What is not a cryptic crossword?

A cryptic crossword is one with cryptic clues. Duh. Yes, but that really is all there is to it. First let us look at what is not cryptic.

Special features

There are crosswords with other special features, such as puzzles where a group of (separately clued) answers are all found in (perhaps) a famous piece of poetry, and the solver is told this, and is expected to use the information as a hint to finding some of the answers. Such puzzles might otherwise have cryptic clues or plain clues.

For example, such a crossword might have a preamble that says that some of the answers appear in a line from Keats; and then, when completed, it is possible to see among the answers the words SEASON, MISTS, MELLOW, and FRUITFULNESS.

The plain clue

What is a plain clue? It is a clue which simply gives a definition, or a synonym, or some other indication of the meaning of the answer. In many of the easier puzzles in newspapers, all the clues are plain clues.

For example, the clue “Camel (9)” is a plain clue for DROMEDARY. And either of the clues “Camel type (8)” or “Two-humped (8)” is a clue for BACTRIAN.

The general knowledge clue

A common type of clue, not quite so plain in the above sense, is the kind based on what is laughably called “general knowledge”. Certain newspapers typically offer this kind of “puzzle”, though you might think (like me) that a better name for some of them would be “crossword quiz” or “trivia crossword” — depending on how useless the knowledge required is.

For example, take the clue “Murdered Scottish king (6)” with the answer DUNCAN. I don’t consider this to be the most basic kind of plain clue, because the answer is a proper name and because you have to know that there was, historically, a king of Scotland called Duncan and that he was murdered — at least, he was according to William Shakespeare in whose play Macbeth that murder, by the title character, is a major part of the plot. That play is the only reason that anybody except a specialized scholar of Scottish history would have any idea what the answer to such a clue would be.

Another example would be the clue “capital of Indonesia (7)” for JAKARTA. This only requires simple geographical knowledge, and — again — the answer is a proper name and is a fact in geography, not a matter of a word in an ordinary dictionary like what one might expect from the most basic plain clue crossword.

The cryptic clue

So, that is what a cryptic puzzle is not: it does not have straight clues that are either a simple definition, or a synonym, and it does not rely solely on general knowledge. However, cryptic crosswords and their clues can require some general knowledge; they can have answers or clue references that are proper names, such as names of people or places; but they also have another specific property: some sort of alternative indication of what the answer is. Read on!

Remember, on this last point, that to make a knowledge-based puzzle harder you make the facts required more obscure; whereas to make a cryptic puzzle harder, you make the way the clue is written more cryptic.

A cryptic clue has two (well, at least two) components.These are:

The indication of meaning is always something like a plain clue, except that you do not know in advance which part of the clue is the plain clue part.

The additional indicator is what makes the clue cryptic, and it is cryptic — mysterious, deceptive, tricky — in two different ways: one way I have just stated: you do not know which part of the clue is the plain clue and which part is the additional indicator.

Apart from that, the additional indicator can be any one of several completely different types, and it is the mastery of these various types that you have to learn. The types are:

The double definition

This clue type is perfect for words with two or more quite different meanings, preferably with different origins too. That is, it is less suitable — at least, less elegant and amusing — for two variants of what was originally the same meaning of a word, therefore with the same origin.

The perfect example of such a word is BEAR; and a perfect example of a double definition for BEAR would be “Tolerate a wild animal (4)”. The verb bear meaning “carry, tolerate, endure” has no etymological connection to the noun meaning an animal of the family Ursidae.

The anagram

Quite a simple idea; the additional indicator consists of some word or phrase made up of exactly the same letters as are in the answer, but in a different order. In this type of indicator, by convention, the clue must also contain an anagram indicator, which means some word or phrase indicating that there is an anagram involved. The clue must therefore contain not just two but three parts:

There are entire chapters of books on crossword puzzle solving, and entire subsystems of websites about the subject, devoted to listing words that can serve as anagram indicators. However, all such indicators are variations on the themes “rearranged”, “scrambled”, “confused”, “worked over”, “destroyed”, “uncertain”, “doubtful”, and so forth.

Do have a look at my list of anagram indicators.

OK, so you spot what may be an anagram indicator, and thus have some idea of which part of the clue might be the anagram, so that what is left is the plain definition. How can you use the anagram? Well, as a language, English has an extraordinary number of anagrams of some words and phrases. Again, there are websites devoted to anagrams.

Or, I should say, supposed anagrams. Some of the words allowed in anagrams offered by some websites rather stretch the definition of what is a usable word. (For example: is “yuk” a word?)

Mind you, the use of exclamations and bizarre phrases can help you figure out which part of a clue is the anagram and which part is the rest (the definition). If a clue says “Terrorist, injured, abandons email (5,3,5)” you might well see the word “injured” and guess it could be an anagram indicator. Then, seeing that the total number of letters in the answer is 13 (the maximum answer length in my SEMantics crossword grids, as it happens) and that “ABANDONS EMAIL” contains 13 letters, you could deduce that “Terrorist” is the plain clue and ... Can you see who it is yet? No? Just read on.

On just one of those anagram websites, if you play with it you quickly see the extraordinary variation in the numbers of anagrams a given text will have. Some words and phrases have no anagrams at all; some have perhaps half a dozen; some have perhaps a few tens or a few hundreds, whereas there are some phrases with tens of thousands of anagrams.

These figures were from the Internet Anagram Server, although when the last example was retried more recently the page went into an advanced mode, probably because of the vast number of possible results. This site includes, at the top of each list it produces, the word or phrase you put in, if that input is itself made up of words the anagream generator recognizes. This is because you can ask it for anagrams of any string, even if that string has no recognized words in it; the engine does not bother to omit the originally given input when listing results. Therefore I have deducted 1 (one) from the total numbers above as I do not consider any word or phrase to be an anagram of itself.

Assembly from parts

Many words in English can be broken up into parts, and a possible clue type for these is a simple clue for the whole and also simple clues for the parts.

By their nature, such parts are often odd letters, and the clues for those have to be their conventional meanings when treated as abbreviations. Just look up in a dictionary any letter of the alphabet, at the very beginning of that section of the book. Many of the letters have many meanings depending on context, and a cryptic clue can allude to any of these in assembling from parts.

Here are just a few examples of meanings used in clues for single letters:

Similarly, here are just a few examples of meanings used in clues for pairs of letters:

and so on.

The parts of the answer can be given in a clue either sequentially, or in some other order such as in “A follows B” where the parts appear in the answer in the order B, A.

A very common alternative to either of these is to have one part contained inside the other of two parts. For example, in ROME we have OM (the Order of Merit, a very exclusive honour awarded by the Queen to a small number of people) inside RE (Religious Education, as a subject taught in schools). So a clue might be:
“City honour awarded in scripture class (4)”.
The analysis is thus:

The embedded answer

Instead of the additional indicator being an assembly of parts or an anagram, it is a phrase containing the answer spelled out in the normal order but typically extending across at least one word break.

For example: “Any London haberdashery stocks this strong polymer.” Answer: NYLON; embedding indicator: “stocks”; containment in “Any london haberdashery”.

Where to start?

Let us suppose that you have read the introduction above on this page and have decided to try your first puzzle. Where do you start?

Well, with the puzzle in front of you, the obvious place is the first clue. Read it and try to start thinking in cryptic puzzle clue terms. Puzzle experts, including Steve Plater in his talk introducing the art of cryptic puzzle solving, refer to the surface reading. Achieving something that reads like this, all part of the same idea, is an important part of the crossword setter’s art, because a clumsy clue may look like two parts cobbled together. However for solving it a clumsy clue can be easier. So let us assume the clue is not clumsy.

As every clue has two parts, the plain clue and one of the indicators, you obviously have to try to guess which part is the plain clue and which type of indicator the rest is. At this stage all you can do is try various possibilities until you find what works.

Lots more cryptic clue examples

Choosing a dictionary

There are special dictionaries dedicated to the business of solving crosswords: I have one by Reader’s Digest and Chambers. And there are the general run of ordinary dictionaries. A standard sized though fairly large one-volume dictionary often recommended for crosswords is the Chambers, because it has traditionally emphasized completeness. That is, if the puzzles you want to do are likely to contain unusual or obscure words, of the sort perhaps that appeal to Scrabble players with a few awkward letters left, Chambers is likely to have the word rather than to have omitted it as too obscure to be of any use.

However, good cryptic crosswords do not rely for their difficulty on obscure answers; no, they have well known words in the answers most of the time; they rely for their cryptic edge on the cleverness of the clues. So any decent sized, reasonably modern, dictionary should suffice.

I have listed my rather extensive collection of normal English language dictionaries, specialist dictionaries, grammar books and other books relating to the English language and writing it on my page A writer’s bibliography


The following are pages in this section, about aspects of solving cryptic crossword puzzles:
My list of anagram indicators
Lots more cryptic clue examples

The following are websites with which I have no connection, just some of many out there that are all or mainly about crossword puzzles:
Anagram Indicators
The Internet Anagram Server
CataList Crossword Solver



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