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.
Answer: BEEHIVE. Comb is to be interpreted to mean honeycomb however the answer is still a hair style.
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).
Answer: BAD BREAKS. Another pun.
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:
Answer: DRAWER. “Reward” went up (reversed) gives DRAWER.
Answer: STOP. Crockery = POTS. Reversed gives STOP.
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”.
Palindromes may be indicated by phases such as “either way”, “going side to side”, “up and down”, “read both ways”.
Answer: PUT UP. A palindrome meaning advance.
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:
Answer: PLUNDER. PL = Place (street name abbrev). UNDER = on bottom. PL + UNDER = PLUNDER (to sack).
More examples using abbreviations:
Answer: VIEW. VI = Roman 6. E and W are compass points. VI + E + W = VIEW (see).
Answer: MOCHA. MO = Doctor (Abbreviation: Medical Officer – MO). CH = Child. MO + CH to have A = MOCHA (coffee).
Letters or words are placed inside other words. Indicators: “within”, “in”, “around”, “about”, “contained”, “held”, “inside”, “retain”, “keeps”, “into”. For example:
Answer: TITIAN. TITAN = Superman. I = interest. Put I into TITAN gives the painter TITIAN.
Answer: CRINGE. CE = Church (of England). RING = phone. RING into CE gives CRINGE.
Answer: EMEND. END = last. ME into END gives EMEND.
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:
Answer: IGNATIUS. “Dress” indicates anagram. Letters of “a suiting” provide IGNATIUS (a saint). Note the importance of the article “a”.
Answer: NURTURE. “False” indicates anagram. Letters of “run true” provide NURTURE (to school). Note an example where punctuation is only intended to mislead.
Homophones can be indicated by “heard”, “sounds like”, “audibly”, “noisily”, “out loud”, “say”, “spoken”.
Answer: NONE. Is a homophone of NUN (sister)
Answer: SITE. Is a homophone of SIGHT (vision)
Instead of wordplay clues can have two definitions side by side to give the same solution. For example:
Answer: OVER THE TOP. 1. Exceeded bounds. 2. Historical slang for charging from war trenches into “no man’s land”.
Answer: SHOW ONES HAND
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:
Answer: CHEAP. C = First class. HEAP = pile. C + HEAP = CHEAP (tacky)
Answer: TRAP. First letters of To Run Around Pointlessly.
Take the odd or even letters to form the solution. Indicated by “odd”, “even”, “regularly” or “every second”. For example:
Answer: SEE. Odd letters of SCENE
Take letters out of clue to provide solution. Indicators: “heartlessly”, “looses”, “curtailed”, “dropped”, “gives up”. For example:
Answer: MAN. COAT = Parker. COAT loses “A” for COT (a bed)
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:
Answer: ARENA. AREA = field. N = sportsmen ultimately (last letter). AREA ‘entered by’ N = ARENA. (Whole clue is the definition)
Answer: NEWSPAPERMEN. “Outstretched” is anagram indicator. “we pen” and “pen arms” are fodder. Gives NEWSPAPERMEN. (Whole clue is the definition)
Basic Latin-based languages are sometimes used in clues. These are typically articles of French, Spanish and German. For example:
Answer: HEEL. HE = man. EL = the in Spanish. HE + EL = HEEL (foot).
Answer: TITLE. TIT = bird. LE = the in French. TIT + LE = TITLE (name).
Occasionally objects that look like letters may be used in a clue. For example:
Answer: LOO. L = rookie (learner). OO looks like glasses. L + OO = LOO.
Clues with more than one type of word-play are extremely common:
Answer: ANKLE. NK = two different abbreviations of knight. ALE = beer. NK inside ALE = ANKLE (a joint).
Answer: TRAVEL. T = heart of Aus(t)ria. RAVEL = composer. T +RAVEL = TRAVEL (to journey)
Answer: ENCLOSE. EN = nearly END (kill). CLOSE = intimate. EN + CLOSE = ENCLOSE (to circle)
Answer: EPOCH. C = 100 yrs (roman). EPOH = Hope (desire) backwards. C inside EPOH = EPOCH (time)
Next, check out some common cryptic crossword Abbreviations.