To the inexperienced solver, cryptic crosswords can seem like complete nonsense. I recall looking at a cryptic for the first time (with the answers!), being completely lost by how the clues in front of me could possibly give the solution.
What I have since come to understand is that ALL cryptic crossword clues follow a prescribed set of rules that once understood, can be used to easily decipher even the toughest of clues. This site will teach you how to properly approach a cryptic crossword by breaking down each clue into easily solvable parts.
How to begin
Understanding the clues:
The first step to solving cryptic crosswords is to understand how they are structured. Strict traditional rules apply to what Setters can and can’t do in their clues. Understanding these rules will mean that clues will no longer seem to be abstract and meaningless phrases.
This site’s explanation of clue structure is based on what is known as the “Ximenean principles” (1966), which said all cryptic clues are made up of three parts:
- a precise definition ← like a traditional ‘quick’ crossword clue
- a fair subsidiary indication ← word-play
- nothing else
To explain the first of these in simple terms: part of the cryptic clue will be like a traditional crossword and define the solution. Everything else in the clue will be a form of word-play to help you get to the same answer as the definition.
The most common mistake made by untrained cryptic crossword solvers is to read the whole clue as one phrase. Rarely will this help obtain the solution.
Cryptic clues = definition + word-play
Determining the definition: part of the clue means the answer
Almost always, the definition can be found at either the start or end of a clue. For example, the definitions in the clues below are underlined:
The first is when the clue is a double definition (see Types of Clues). This is where two definitions for the same answer are given. There is no word-play in these clues but the setter often uses words with multiple meanings.
Decrease: step down. “De-crease”: to press (or iron) clothes.
Double definitions often play on obscure meanings of words. Take for example:
Sinister: dark or evil. Sinister: “left” from biblical origins – Satan was ‘the sinister one’ on God’s left side.
The second exception to a straightforward definition is a “pure cryptic” clue. In this clue type, the whole clue is a cryptic definition. These clues are often an opportunity for the Setter to have a sense of humour. For example:
The whole clue is the definition however the word “barely” needs to be interpreted unusually for this context.
“Pure cryptic” clues are often indicated by a question mark.
Beware! These definitions aren’t always straightforward and often require thinking outside the box. Once familiar with, solvers commonly find these witty definitions one of their favourite parts of cryptic crosswords. Here are a few fun clues below:
Answer: ESCALATOR (flight of stairs)
Answer: SHRINK RESISTANT
Double Definition: 1. Laundry safe 2. Reluctant to see a psychiatrist.
Everything else is word-play
Word-play features in the majority of cryptic clues. It allows the solver to reach the answer indirectly without necessarily having the general knowledge (or vocabulary) required to solve the clue from the definition alone. The Types of Clues section gives a comprehensive overview of the variety of word-play that can be encountered. Although not always required, once the definition has been confidently established the clue becomes substantially easier to solve. In fact, it is not uncommon to have an answer in mind from the definition and then work back to find how it fits the word-play.
At this point I suggest familiarising yourself with the different Types of Clues before continuing with this guide.
As well as understanding the structure of clues there are some other important points to note:
Always ignore punctuation! (Only two exceptions)
Cryptic Crossword Setters will use every means to deceive you – including misleading punctuation. All hyphens, commas, periods, colons, brackets and capitalisations should be ignored. Often these grammatical symbols can be used to misleadingly divide hidden words or anagrams. For example:
Add clues that use confusing punctuation
Punctuation worth noting:
Pay attention when you see the question mark (?) or exclamation mark (!).
(?) Often used at the end of a clue or immediately after the definition, the question mark indicates the clue will require lateral thinking or different interpretation of the words. Considering this is above the “normal” amount of lateral thinking involved in any cryptic crossword, answers ending with a question mark can be quite obscure and may contain a pun.
(!) Best described in the Types of Clues section as ‘& lit’, the exclamation point usually identifies a clue where the word-play and definition over-lap or are the same.
Also it is important to note the tense of the answer will be the same tense as the definition. For example if a definition ends in –ed, -ing or is plural, the answer will most likely be the same. This matches the convention followed in traditional ‘quick’ crosswords.
Consider every word
While clues are constructed to make grammatical sense, very often every word in the clue is significant. Articles are very easy to overlook, but here’s a few examples showing where usually not-so-important words make all the difference:
Definition: Spike. Nothing = NIL, “to hold a” – put A inside NIL = NAIL. Note the importance of the article “a” even though it was grammatically required.
Whole clue is a definition (indicated by “!”). “Leader of Muslims” = M (first letter of Muslims). IM + A + M = IMAM (a religious figure).
Take note: This is not a blanket rule. There are plenty of cases where an extra word or two may be needed for correct grammatical structure. Just ensure the alternative is always considered.
Always look for Abbreviations
All cryptic crosswords use abbreviations. While the origins of many of these are immediately identifiable, there are a great number of outdated abbreviations still commonly in use. Normally of British origin, these components of word-play can sometimes be quite obscure. Check out some examples below and also the Abbreviations page for online lists.
Abbreviations are often used in charade clues for example:
Definition: Light. Bishop abbreviates B from chess notation, Gas abbreviates HE for helium.
B + LIT (turned on) + HE = BLITHE
At this point hopefully you’ve read the introduction (and Types of Clues) and feel you have a reasonable technical knowledge of how to solve clues. Despite this, it is unrealistic to expect you can now finish entire cryptic crosswords! I recommend the following exercises to help you solve more clues faster.
For each clue in a cryptic crossword, circle which word or words you think are the definition. Being able to identify the definition is one of the most useful skills to have when doing cryptic crosswords and is always the first step when approaching any cryptic clue. Identify particular clues you feel most certain about the definition and have a go solving them. Take some time to consider each clue (don’t rush!) - Rarely will the answer be immediately obvious. Remember, the definition is usually at the beginning or end of the clue.
Once your satisfied with your attempt, look at the answers (or tomorrow’s paper) for the clues. How many definitions did you get right? See if you can beat that number next time.
This exercise will help if you’re having trouble trying to work out what type of word-play a particular clue employs. Don’t worry! This has got to be the number one frustration of cryptic crossword beginners. After attempting Exercise 1, use the answers to the crossword and work back to determine the structure and type of word-play used in each clue. This is usually an enjoyable exercise for beginners and allows you to get inside the mind of the setter. Does this Setter use a lot of anagrams in his solutions? Does she have a couple of definitions that get used repeatedly? I guarantee that doing this regularly will yield the greatest improvement of your cryptic crossword ability.
Working backwards to decipher clues will teach you more about cryptic crosswords than any tutorial. It will help grasp common clue types, passively learning abbreviations and allow you to get a feel for your particular Setter’s style.
A final note on choosing the right crossword
Cryptic crosswords are available at a range of difficulties and it is important to start out at a level that you can be challenged but also receive satisfaction for completing clues. The Guardian and Times crosswords are renowned for producing very challenging puzzles, but are certainly not insurmountable. You might not have a choice in the newspaper but for easier cryptic crosswords have a look in gossip/lifestyle magazines or cryptic crossword books.