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October 1, 2003 Peculiar robotics effort today (5,2,7) Cryptic crossword puzzles and how to solve them Daniel Stewart Recognizing cryptic crosswords Typical standard crossword grid Typical cryptic crossword grid Barred cryptic (or Torquemeda) grid

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October 1, 2003

Peculiar robotics effort today (5,2,7)

Cryptic crossword puzzles and how to solve them

Daniel Stewart

Recognizing cryptic crosswords

Typical standard crossword grid

Typical cryptic crossword grid

Barred cryptic (or Torquemeda) grid

However, cryptic crosswords are mainly distinguished by their clues

  • A cryptic crossword clue (almost always) consists of:

    A surface reading which includes:

    A definition + some kind of wordplay (or wordplay + definition) along with the number of letters in the answer

For example:

Resilient pig’s home filled with vomit (8)


Resilientpig’s home filled with vomit (8)



Resilientpig’s home filled with vomit (8)



“filled with” = container indicator (i.e. specifies the type of wordplay)

“pig’s home” = STY

“vomit” = RETCH

That is: sty filled with retch


STRETCHY , one meaning of which is “resilient”

(the definition portion of the clue)

Types of clues

  • containers

  • charades

  • anagrams

  • double definitions

  • hidden words

  • homonyms

  • reversals

  • subtractions

  • British-style cryptic clues

  • There are other, less common, types and more than one type can be combined in a single clue

Charade Clues


Politically divided island tolerated

nothing (6)


  • Politically divided island tolerated

    nothing (6)

“Politically divided island” = definition

“tolerated” = BORNE

“nothing” = O

(“nothing” or “love” often indicates the letter “O”)


Charade clues thus require “construction” of the answer from parts supplied in the clue

Anagram clues


Peculiar robotics effort today (5,2,7)


Peculiar robotics effort today (5,2,7)

“Peculiar” = anagram indicator

(anagram indicators can be words like “mixed”, “unusual”, and so on)

“robotics effort” = anagram fodder

“today” = definition

The letters in“robotics effort”can be rearranged to form:


Double definition clues


Make tea expensive (5)


Make tea expensive (5)

“make tea” = STEEP

“expensive” = STEEP

The answer to the clue, STEEP, is a single word that satisfies the two, very different, definitions

Hidden word clues


Scots snack foundin disco nearby (5)


Scots snack foundin disco nearby (5)

“found in” = hidden word indicator

(others might be “holds”, “carries”, or just “in”)

“disco nearby” = words containing hidden answer

SCONE is contained in “disconearby”

Homonym clues


Feudal drudge waves to the audience (4)


Feudal drudge waves to the audience (4)

“to the audience” = homonym indicator

(others can be “to the ear”, “heard”, “for the auditor”, … )

“waves” = surf, which is a homonym of:

SERF, which satisfies the definition: “feudal drudge”

In this case the homonym indicator is at the end of the wordplay indicating that a word for “waves” is a homonym of a word for “feudal drudge” and not the other way around (they both have four letters). Compare to:

Actor Tom heard stage hands (5)

The answer here is CREWS, which has 5 letters; not CRUISE (if the clue had indicated 6 letters, the answer would be CRUISE). When the two homonyms have a different number of letters, the homonym indicator can be in the middle of the clue with the correct answer of the two possible indicated by the number of letters.

Reversal clues


Touch horn backing up (4)


Touch horn backing up (4)

“touch” = definition

“horn” = TUBA

“backing up” = reversal indicator

(others can be “from the south”—in a down clue, “from the East”—in an across clue, or just “reversed”)

TUBA backwards is ABUT

Subtraction clues


Montana town spread endlessly(5)


Montana town spread endlessly(5)

“spread” = BUTTER

“endlessly” = subtraction indicator

BUTTER with the “R” removed = BUTTE

Note that either end of the word can be removed and more than one letter can be removed. Consider:

Backside spread endlessly(4)

Clues using a combination of these principles:

Any of these can be combined. For example:

Brat at Ontario museum put outwithout warning(9)


Brat at Ontario museum put out

without warning(9)


This is a combination of a charade clue and an anagram:

  • “Brat” = IMP

  • “Ontario museum” = ROM

  • “put out”

    • “put” = anagram fodder

    • “out” = anagram indicator


  • Which satisfies the definition, without warning

British-style cryptic clues

In American and Canadian cryptic crosswords there is great emphasis placed on the form of the clue—there must be a definition, wordplay, and an indicator, if one is required. No other words should appear in the clue.

  • The British-style cryptic clue is often much looser:

    • non-cryptic clues are occasionally included in puzzles; e.g. Mideastern city (5) -- Cairo

    • clues can be cryptic without the strict American structure; e.g. Kosher diet (7) -- Knesset

    • extra words are often found in the clues “linking” the definition and the wordplay; e.g.

      • Town in Montanaisspread endlessly(5)

      • “is” does not form part of the definition or the wordplay; it just links the two (occasionally seen in American puzzles also)

The most difficult cryptic crossword clue ever:

  • “E” (13)

  • The answer is SENSELESSNESS

  • This is a kind of a reversed subtraction clue.

  • SENSELESSNESS, that is:

  • the letters in SENSE

  • LESS (i.e. take away)

  • the letters in NESS

  • which leaves the letter “E”.

  • The solver here is being required to find the cryptic clue – “SENSELESSNESS” that produces the answer “E” as an answer to “E” presented as a cryptic clue.

    Where to find cryptic crosswords:

    • Toronto Globe and Mail

      • Weekday: anonymous British (on line)

      • Weekend: Fraser Simpson

    • National Post

    • Virtually any British newspaper (particularly the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph—usually signed with a pseudonym)

    • A large number of web sites

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