Types of Clues

Understanding the different types of word-play used in cryptic crosswords is crucial to your success. Many great quality resources are available that explain the different types of cryptic crossword clues and I suggest you read as many as you can! (Wikipedia is a good place read next) The more examples of word-play you encounter, the easier it will be to recognise in clues. The explanations and examples below are unique to this page.

Depending on the difficulty of the crossword, more than one type of word-play in a clue is common. At the bottom of this page are some examples showing how these combinations of word-play can create some tricky clues. Multiple word-play clues are common in the Guardian and Times crosswords – if you are a beginner, perhaps start with crosswords in magazines or puzzle books.

Purely Cryptic Definition

In this type of clue the whole clue is usually the definition in an unusual context. They are sometimes indicated by ending with a question mark.

For example:

Hair style with comb in it? (7)
Answer: BEEHIVE. Comb is to be interpreted to mean honeycomb however the answer is still a hair style.
A late bloomer? (7, 8)
Answer: EVENING PRIMROSE. The answer here is a pun with an obscure meaning for Bloom-er (one that blooms: a flower). Ironically “flower” often refers to a river or flow-er (one that flows: a river).
Poor opportunities for snooker players? (3, 6)
Answer: BAD BREAKS. Another pun.

Reversals

The reverse of part of the clue provides the definition. Indicators: “back”, “reflected”, “turned” “going up” (in a down clue), “west” or “left” (in an across clue). For example:

Sketcher went up to get reward (6)
Answer: DRAWER. “Reward” went up (reversed) gives DRAWER.
Go no further putting the crockery up (4)
Answer: STOP. Crockery = POTS. Reversed gives STOP.

Hidden Clues

The word is hidden within the letters of the wordplay. Indicators of a hidden clue are “in part”, “partially”, “in”, “within”, “hides”, “conceals”, “some”, and “held by”.

Delia’s pickle contains jelly (5)
Answer: ASPIC
Brew some magic up pal (5)
Answer: CUPPA

Palindromes

Palindromes may be indicated by phases such as “either way”, “going side to side”, “up and down”, “read both ways”.

Advance in either direction (3, 2)
Answer: PUT UP. A palindrome meaning advance.

“Charade” Clues

Charade clues are formed by joining individual clues together to create the solution. Indicators not necessary but joining words like “with”, “follows”, “behind”, “after” are likely. More complex cryptic crosswords will often combine charade clues with other types of word-play. The use of abbreviations in charade clues is very common. For example:

Place on bottom of sack (7)
Answer: PLUNDER. PL = Place (street name abbrev). UNDER = on bottom. PL + UNDER = PLUNDER (to sack).

More examples using abbreviations:

See six points (4)
Answer: VIEW. VI = Roman 6. E and W are compass points. VI + E + W = VIEW (see).
Doctor wants child to have a coffee (5)
Answer: MOCHA. MO = Doctor (Abbreviation: Medical Officer – MO). CH = Child. MO + CH to have A = MOCHA (coffee).

Containers

Letters or words are placed inside other words. Indicators: “within”, “in”, “around”, “about”, “contained”, “held”, “inside”, “retain”, “keeps”, “into”. For example:

Superman retains interest in Painter (6)
Answer: TITIAN. TITAN = Superman. I = interest. Put I into TITAN gives the painter TITIAN.
Shrink from phone in church (6)
Answer: CRINGE. CE = Church (of England). RING = phone. RING into CE gives CRINGE.
Make a change and put me in last (5)
Answer: EMEND. END = last. ME into END gives EMEND.

Anagrams

Anagrams are the most common clue-type. Indicated by potentially hundreds of words that loosely mean modify or change. Some examples: “transfer”, “switch”, “cook”, “kill”, “reborn”, “mixed”, “turned”, “out”, “off”, “warped”, “lost”, “moved”. Always consider potential anagram indicators when solving any clue. Fodder (the letters to be jumbled) will always appear before or after indicator. Multiple whole words can be used as fodder however the number of letters must match the solution. For example:

Dress suiting a saint (8)
Answer: IGNATIUS. “Dress” indicates anagram. Letters of “a suiting” provide IGNATIUS (a saint). Note the importance of the article “a”.
School run – true/false (7)
Answer: NURTURE. “False” indicates anagram. Letters of “run true” provide NURTURE (to school). Note an example where punctuation is only intended to mislead.

Homophones

Homophones can be indicated by “heard”, “sounds like”, “audibly”, “noisily”, “out loud”, “say”, “spoken”.

Not even one sister heard (4)
Answer: NONE. Is a homophone of NUN (sister)
Location of vision we hear (4)
Answer: SITE. Is a homophone of SIGHT (vision)

Double Definition

Instead of wordplay clues can have two definitions side by side to give the same solution. For example:

Gone too far into no man’s land? (4, 3, 3)
Answer: OVER THE TOP. 1. Exceeded bounds. 2. Historical slang for charging from war trenches into “no man’s land”.
Horse pistol (4)
Answer: COLT
Expose tactics by removing glove (4, 4, 4)
Answer: SHOW ONES HAND

Initialisms

First letter or letters provide the solution. Indicated by “first”, “prime”, “lead”, “head”, “top”. Note similarly “last”, “ultimate”, “final” can refer to the last letter. For example:

First class pile is really just tacky (5)
Answer: CHEAP. C = First class. HEAP = pile. C + HEAP = CHEAP (tacky)
Starts to run around pointlessly in a bind (4)
Answer: TRAP. First letters of To Run Around Pointlessly.

Odd/Even Clues

Take the odd or even letters to form the solution. Indicated by “odd”, “even”, “regularly” or “every second”. For example:

Observe odd characters in scene (3)
Answer: SEE. Odd letters of SCENE

Deletions

Take letters out of clue to provide solution. Indicators: “heartlessly”, “looses”, “curtailed”, “dropped”, “gives up”. For example:

Parker loses a bed (3)
Answer: MAN. COAT = Parker. COAT loses “A” for COT (a bed)

“& lit.”

An unusual type of word-play where the whole clue is both the definition and the word-play. “& lit.” clues are normally indicated by an exclamation mark.  This type of clue is normally only found in challenging puzzles. For example:

Field entered by sportsmen ultimately! (5)
Answer: ARENA. AREA = field. N = sportsmen ultimately (last letter). AREA ‘entered by’ N = ARENA. (Whole clue is the definition)
We pen and pen with arms outstretched! (12)
Answer: NEWSPAPERMEN. “Outstretched” is anagram indicator. “we pen” and “pen arms” are fodder. Gives NEWSPAPERMEN. (Whole clue is the definition)

Language Clues

Basic Latin-based languages are sometimes used in clues. These are typically articles of French, Spanish and German.  For example:

Man on the Spanish foot (4)
Answer: HEEL. HE = man. EL = the in Spanish. HE + EL = HEEL (foot).
Bird with the French name (5)
Answer: TITLE. TIT = bird. LE = the in French. TIT + LE = TITLE (name).

Visual Clues

Occasionally objects that look like letters may be used in a clue. For example:

Rookie wears glasses to the toilet (3)
Answer: LOO. L = rookie (learner). OO looks like glasses. L + OO = LOO.

Combination Clues

Clues with more than one type of word-play are extremely common:

Joint in which two knights tuck into beer (5)
Answer: ANKLE. NK = two different abbreviations of knight. ALE = beer. NK inside ALE = ANKLE (a joint).
Journey in the heart of Austria accompanied by composer (6)
Answer: TRAVEL. T = heart of Aus(t)ria. RAVEL = composer. T +RAVEL = TRAVEL (to journey)
Nearly kill intimate circle (7)
Answer: ENCLOSE. EN = nearly END (kill). CLOSE = intimate. EN + CLOSE = ENCLOSE (to circle)
Desire to go back about 100 years time (5)
Answer: EPOCH. C = 100 yrs (roman). EPOH = Hope (desire) backwards. C inside EPOH = EPOCH (time)

Next, check out some common cryptic crossword Abbreviations.

The seamstress's sensation? (4, 3, 7)

See solution