Solving crosswords

The cryptic crossword is often seen as a mystery to people encountering it for the first time.  There’s certainly a sense of some sort of private conversation going on, but in that respect it’s no different from the sort of thing that goes on, say, at a Doctor Who convention, or amongst a group of stockbrokers, or in any MMORPG (whatever that is).  Once you’ve taken a few tentative steps into the maelstrom, you actually might find yourself enjoying it.

This page is meant to help with those few tentative steps.  In addition, from time to time, I will add a page here on more general topics of crossword interest.  It is a work in progress, with ‘progress’ defined in a very Humpty-Dumptyish fashion.

Basic principles

It may seem odd to state the fact, but a crossword is a puzzle that is meant to be solved.  So as a setter I expect you to be able to get through to the end.  I may put one or more obstacles in your way.  Different puzzles will have more or fewer of these obstacles, and will be of varying difficulty as a result.  Any individual solver may or may not be able to solve a given puzzle, but there shouldn’t be a puzzle that no-one can solve.

How this is achieved is through the clues.  They are meant to be helpful, no matter what some may say.  In particular, they generally give you two indications for each answer.  One will be a definition, the other will be some form of wordplay.  The most familiar is probably the anagram, but there are a range of different types using different components of the word being clued.  The word may be broken into component parts (A + NAG + RAM), or it may be reversed (TRAP -> PART), or it may be hidden (PORT may be found in shoP OR Tavern).  The whole skill of solving a crossword lies in spotting which type of wordplay is going on in a clue, and using that to confirm the answer suggested by the definition.

In fact, sometimes having only a definition can be quite tricky.  ‘Dog (7)’ could be SPANIEL, or SAMOYED, or POINTER, or TERRIER, or MONGREL, or BASENJI, but ‘Dog leaps in, excited (7)’ is only going to be SPANIEL (why? Because it’s an anagram of LEAPS IN, shown by the word ‘excited’ – see more under Anagrams).

So there’s one concept to work with: a cryptic clue has two components, one a definition and one based on some form of wordplay.  Where it becomes trickier is that the solver does not know which part of the clue is which, nor which form of wordplay is being used.

We can narrow things down a little: a general rule would be that the definition is at one or other end of the clue. The occasions when a devious bit of wordplay airlifts the definition into the middle of the clue are really rather few and far between (but do note the implication that all general rules eventually break down, even the one in this parenthesis).  A regular solver will look at a clue and (almost unthinkingly) decide which end looks a better bet for the definition. A good setter will make that a tricky decision.

Once that decision has been made, then the solver looks at the rest of the clue and tries to determine the wordplay.  Here’s where a bit of instruction and a lot of practice come in.  In much the same way you need to be told that the chesspiece with a slot in it is a bishop and moves diagonally (not generally behaviour even close friends and relatives observe in their ordained loved ones) and also that that horsey thing turns corners.  After that you practise and practise, and turn into Garry Kasparov (or take up crosswords).

So from here on, we’ll look at the commoner clue types, and then at how they may be combined, and then perhaps annotate a puzzle in a solving blog.

Actually, before we do that, a brief word on clues and how they contribute to the puzzle as a whole.  Obviously every puzzle should contain a mix of clues – a puzzle where every clue was an anagram would be pretty dull stuff. How that mix is made up is less clear.  If the puzzle has (say) four anagrams, does it matter that they are in consecutive clues?  I remember a crossword editor tutting to me over just that feature of another (and very distinguished) setter’s puzzle.  But it struck me even then as a very editorial comment to make – you’d have to solve the clues precisely in sequence for it to strike home.  While a proportion of solvers may read through the clues in order as part of their approach to tackling  a puzzle, I suspect the number who do solve in so systematic a way is small.  So it’s something an editor is more likely to notice than a solver.  (As to whether the setter should notice – well, that’s for an article discussing how clues get written; not quite the place here.)

I tend not to think greatly about the mix.  If all the longer answers attract anagram clues, then I’ll be wary of using them elsewhere – but I’d prefer that at least one or two of the longer answers weren’t anagrams anyway.  And I have on occasion noted that I’d only included one or two anagrams in a puzzle (and then taken them out – just to see if any bloggers would notice; empirical observation: yes, but not many.)

I’ve concentrated on anagrams here because I think they’re the most noticeable type of clue.  But the same could be said of the various types of charade clue, though I have never encountered anyone commenting about the number of reversals in the clues of a crossword.  All of which makes me feel that it’s clue quality rather than clue type that should drive a puzzle.

So let’s itemise clue types:



Charades – which will be further broken down into: sequential; containers; addition/subtraction

Definitions – which will be further broken down into: cryptic; double


Initial letters



Multiple part clues

I’ve put the basic types in alphabetical order for convenience, though that also takes anagrams (which many consider the pre-eminent example of crossword clue types) to the top.  Often a clue consists of  multiple parts drawing from different types – so, an anagram may have an additional letter inserted in it, or may itself be inserted into another; one component of a charade clue may be a reversal, and so on.  (A key exception: the hidden type almost never appears in conjunction with other types.)  Once I’ve completed a section on each basic type, I’ll come back to this point and add a few examples of more complex structures.

General topics

Music and Crosswords


A fictional clue

Ghost themes

Apostrophe S


To be continued


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