Table of Contents

Cryptic Crosswords

How do I solve Cryptic Crosswords?

National Puzzlers' League Cryptic Crosswords The NPL has previously published a book: National Puzzlers' League Cryptic Crosswords, edited by Joshua Kosman (Trazom) and Henri Picciotto (Hot), Random House Puzzles & Games, ISBN 0812936604.

This is no longer in print, and is now available for download.

We have a longer article on solving Cryptic Crosswords in the Guide to the Enigma. Many of the following links will also take you to that article.

Cryptic crosswords can seem dauntingly nonsensical at first glance. But the fundamental principles of cryptic writing cryptic clues are actually quite simple.

Every cryptic clue can be read as a (somewhat) sensible phrase or sentence. In reality, however, it has two separate parts. One is a definition, like those in a standard crossword puzzle. The other part uses some form of wordplay to steer you to the intended answer. It is called the wordplay, the subsidiary indication, or simply the subsidiary. These two parts provide independent indications of the same answer. Either part may come first in the clue. Sometimes a word or two, suggesting how the two parts work together, may come in between; more often, the definition and wordplay will simply occur side by side. In any case, they will never overlap or intermingle.

This means that, with a few exceptions, every clue either begins or ends with a definition of the answer. The catch is that you have to find the break between definition and wordplay. The constructor tries to challenge you with clues whose surface meaning puts you off the scent – for example, with a clue whose parts split in the middle of a common two-word phrase, or by seeming to use a word as a verb that is really meant as a noun. Cryptic clues may also use punctuation in whatever manner seems most likely to deceive; solvers are warned to ignore punctuation.

Cryptic clues generally direct you (albeit deceptively) to the type of wordplay involved. Here is a tour of the eight common types of wordplay, along with hints on how to spot them.

  1. Anagrams scramble the letters of the word into another word.
  2. Charades, as in the flat type (or the game) of this name, have an answer that is broken down into two or more words that appear in succession; for example, consummate is made up of con, sum, and mate.
  3. Containers place one word within the letters of another word; in courthouse, for instance, thou is contained within course.
  4. Reversals reverse the letters of of a word into another word.
  5. Homophones sound the same but are spelled differently, like through and threw or bizarre and bazaar.
  6. Deletions are formed by deleting a letter or group of letters from another word.
  7. Double Definitions provide a second definition of the answer, preferably in an unrelated sense.
  8. Hidden Words the answer is printed explicitly in the clue, but camouflaged within another word or other words.

One of the best ways to solve cryptic crosswords is to look for something that might be an “indicator” word that gives you a clue about the wordplay type. Some common examples (and nowhere near all of them) would include:

Wordplay Possible Indicators
Anagrams doctor, mad, crazy, mixed up
Charades at, by, near, before, after;
or (in Down clues) on, over, or beneath
Containers inside, holding, swallowing, within and (its deceptive opposite) without, and around
Reversals backwards, returning, heading west, from right to left
or (in Down clues) upward or rising
Homophones heard, spoken, aloud, or they say
Deletions beheaded, endlessly,
or (in a Down clue) topless;
or it may specify a particular letter or letters to be omitted.
Double Definitions By convention, when the second definition is a pun or whimsical one the clue is flagged with a question mark.
Hidden Words seen in, running through, or in part

Other Resources

When you are learning how to solve Cryptic Crosswords, helpful books include:

hex_cryptic_cross_240.jpg Random House Guide to Crytic Crossword, by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon (Hex), 1989, 263pp., ISBN 0-8129-2621-8 A well designed “step-by-step” approach to solving. In each chapter, only one clue type is intruduced and practice puzzles of increasing complexity give you a natural flow of seeing more and more complex and devious clues. Before you know it, you are in the later chapters and recognizing all the clues quickly and easily.

also for MS Word
Trazom wrote an excellent article on solving Cryptics which may be found in The Guide to the Enigma For the TexSACon, before we decided to make sure each team had a cryptic solver, roy created a 4-page guide to Cryptics by adding a new 1-page summary at the front of Trazom's article.