Brief Guide to Cryptic Crosswords

Brief Guide to Cryptic Crosswords

The first thing to know about cryptic crosswords is that you don't have to be specially clever to solve them. Let's look at a simple example to show how they differ from straight/concise ones:

Simple Example

Straight clue: Tree (3)
The answer could be OAK, ELM, ASH, YEW or BAY etc but you won't know which until you have other, crossing, answers.

A cryptic clue for the same answer might be: Tree has moved (3)

Here you have the same definition, 'tree' plus an extra indication telling you the letters of 'has' (H A S) need to be 'moved', i.e. rearranged. So you can confidently enter the answer: ASH.

The above example shows the classic format of a cryptic clue i.e. definition + cryptic ('hidden') indication. Sometimes the definition is at the start of the clue, sometimes at the end - you have to work out which. The 'cryptic indication' in this case is an anagram.

Below are some other types of cryptic indications.

Other examples of cryptic indications

  • Letters of the answer hidden in the clue wording itself : Tree in Texas hurricane (3) ans = ASH (the 'in' tells you it's hidden in texAS Hurricane)
  • Answer split into two or more words : A quiet tree (3) A + SH (= "Quiet!") = ASH
    As above, but abbreviation instead of word :
    Tree's like, gaining height!(3) AS (=like) + H(abbrev. for 'height', as in H x W x D)
  • Two definitions (same spelling, different meanings): Tree remains (3) ASH means 'tree' but also means 'remains (of fire)'
  • One word (or abbreviation) put inside another: Contented sound about southern tree (3) AH (=contented sound) goes about S(outhern) to give ASH
  • First letters of some of the words of the clue make up the answer: Initially, artisan saws hollow tree (3) A(rtisan) S(aws) H(ollow) = ASH ('initially' is commonly used in this type of clue)
  • Cryptic definition (i.e. accurate def., but misleading): All you're left with after a firing? (3) intention is to make you think 'firing' = 'dismissal'
    NB. in this type of clue, there is just a definition - but with a 'cryptic twist'
  • Removal of one or more letters from another word to arrive at answer: Cash is lacking for tree (3) CASH less 'C' (cash lacking) = ASH
  • Actually the above is more likely to appear as: Money is lacking for tree (3) so you have to find a synonym of 'money' ('cash' in this case) and work on that.
  • In fact, the setter might go a step further, with a less obvious definition: Money is lacking for potential timber (3) (ASH now defined as 'potential timber')

The last two examples are a bit more tricky, and of course cryptic clues can get trickier still. Crossword setters often combine two or more cryptic elements in the same clue. This isn't to make things impossible for the solver; it's because solvers quickly learn the tricks and want something more challenging.

If you're inexperienced, don't worry: practice will help you spot the cryptic devices. There'll always be a definition somewhere in the clue. And the cryptic bit, once you've cracked it, gives you more help - it's that 'cracking' process which provides a satisfying, entertaining challenge.

More examples - Reversal and 'Sounds like'

  • Reversal of the letters of the answer: Current makes wolf go back (4) ans. = FLOW, which is WOLF reversed
    Normally, this clue would have something like 'animal' instead of 'wolf' to make you think a bit harder.
    Exploiting the fact that the answer sounds like another (differently spelt) word:
    Just the cost of travel it's said (4) ans = FAIR(=just), which sounds like 'fare' - 'it's said' is the giveaway here.

You've now seen all of the cryptic devices you're likely to come across in a cryptic crossword. As already mentioned, setters often combine cryptic indications to make clues more interesting and challenging. A couple of examples follow.

More complex clues

US resort has cooked lamb covered with fruit (4,5) anagram of LAMB inside ('covered with') PEACH = PALM BEACH
So, not just one word inside another, but an anagram ('cooked' LAMB) inside a word. In fact, the setter might add an extra layer of complexity:
Processed lamb in awfully cheap US resort (4,5) anagram ('processed') of LAMB inside anagram ('awfully') of CHEAP. Note that the def. is at the end of the clue this time.

If this is all starting to look too complicated, don't be put off. It takes surprisingly little time to learn how to spot these tricks and unpick the clues. The best way is just to have a go at some cryptic crosswords and learn from experience.

A few basic tips

  1. Start by trying to work out which part of the clue is the definition - it'll be at the start or the end of the clue. (As mentioned above, the whole clue might be one cryptic definition - the clue's wording often hints at this).
  2. Once you've spotted the likely definition word(s), you'll have a good idea of what the cryptic element is, of course. Sometimes, you might go about this process the other way round: e.g. part of the clue might shout "anagram!" at you, helping you identify the cryptic element first.
    Setters will often try to put you off the track by using an off-beat definition:
    e.g. Angelica's odd number (9) ans = ANALGESIC, an anag. ('odd') of ANGELICAS; the def. is 'number' i.e. something that numbs. So, be on your guard! (Note that the apostrophe in Angelica's is ignored, as is often the case with punctuation in cryptic clues.)

  3. Look for words that give a hint as to the type of cryptic device being used:
    A double definition clue often consists of just two words (like "Tree remains (3)" above)
    Anagram indicators will be something like 'confused', mixed up', 'about', 'changed', 'crazy'.
    Hidden answer indicators will be 'in', 'inside', 'partly', 'some' etc.
    Reversal indicators will be 'back', 'backing', 'returning', 'topsy-turvy', 'up' / 'upside down' (if it's a down clue).
    'Sounds like' indicators will be 'by the sound of it', 'we hear', 'it's said' etc.

  4. ... and so on - you get the idea. Of course, setters will often use less obvious indicators (e.g. 'rocky' for an anagram or 'going west' for a reversal!) but even these will become apparent as you gain experience.

  5. You'll also have to watch for words that could indicate abbreviations - common ones are: 'north' 'south' 'east' 'west' 'north east', 'south east', 'south west' to indicate N, S, E, W, NE, SE, SW; 'energy' = E; 'time'= T, 'right' = R, 'left' = L and so on.

  6. Numbers in clues often denote Roman numerals - e.g. '10' or 'ten'= X, '5' or 'five' = V, '100' or 'hundred' = C, '50' or 'fifty' = L, '4' or 'four' = IV, and so on.

  7. Final piece of advice: when starting out, it's a good idea to look at the answers and then 'work backwards' to reveal how the clue works.

Other, more comprehensive, guides to cryptics can be found online - just search for e.g. "how to solve cryptic crosswords". A particularly good site is Best for Puzzles which has an excellent 'how to' guide, plus lists of commonly-used cryptic indicators, abbreviations etc.

This guide was compiled by Eddie James a fine crossword setter who we can't recommend enough!