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Big Dave’s Little Guide to Cryptic Crosswords

Clue Types

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Types of cryptic crossword clue•••• << Back to Contents

What is a cryptic clue?

What is an all-in-one clue?

What is an anagram?

What is a charade?

What is a combination clue?

What is a cryptic definition

What is a deletion?

What is a double definition?

What are even and odd letters?

What is a hidden word?

What is a homophone?

What are initial and final letters?

What is an insertion?

What is a reversal?

What is a cryptic clue?•••• ^ Back to top of page

A cryptic clue is any crossword clue in which the answer is hidden or, to quote Chambers, mysteriously obscure.

Various types of cryptic clue construct have been developed since cryptic crossword puzzles first appeared over 80 years ago. Several of these, including anagrams, hidden words, cryptic definitions, double definitions, and the ultimate achievement the all-in-one, or &lit, clue are explained in this guide.

A typical cryptic clue consists of the definition, which is usually at the beginning or the end of the clue, and the subsidiary indication, or wordplay, which makes up the rest of the clue and has to be unravelled in order to derive the answer.

The principles for setting fair cryptic clues were set out by Ximenes, and are known as the Ximenean principles. These were summarised by Azed as:

A good cryptic clue contains three elements:

  1. a precise definition
  2. a fair subsidiary indication
  3. nothing else

In many ways the third principle is at one and the same time the most important and the most abused. One of the most frequent complaints made by reviewers is the presence of padding introduced to improve the surface reading of a clue. This is at best annoying and at worst downright confusing. A large number of setters adhere to the Ximenean principles most of the time, but a few choose to ignore them.

Many clues use more than one construct – for example, it is not unusual for one or both parts of a double definition to be a cryptic definition.

The length of the word or words in the answer to a clue is usually given, in brackets, at the end of the clue. This length will also indicate hyphenated words. It will not usually indicate the presence of apostrophes, or other punctuation such as accents.

A typical example, from a recent Telegraph crossword:

Speedy delivery of stanchion to A1? (5-5,4) [T 101]
The definition, speedy delivery, gives FIRST-CLASS POST; the subsidiary indication, or wordplay revolves around the cryptic interpretation of a POST being a stanchion and FIRST-CLASS being a synonym for A1.

What is an all-in-one clue?•••• ^ Back to top of page

Frequently referred to as an &lit, this is a clue which describes the answer, but has the wordplay hidden inside. They are the Holy Grail for crossword setters as they are hard to write, particularly hard to write well, and they don’t come up all that often. The term &lit stands for “and literally so”, but most of the bloggers on Big Dave’s Telegraph Crossword Blog have elected to use the rather more descriptive, and less pretentious, term all-in-one.

The best way to check whether a clue qualifies is to cross out all of the elements of the wordplay. If nothing is left, then reread the clue to see if all of it defines the answer. Some clues fail this latter test, but that doesn’t mean they are not good clues. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

Some examples with hidden words:

Part of colossal volley? (5) [T 110]
Part of indicates that the answer SALVO is hidden in colossal volley, and is defined by the clue

Among the world’s severest challenges (7) [T 152]
Here among indicates that one of the world’s severest challenges, EVEREST, is hidden in the clue

This one was a “Clue of the Week”:

What torments flesh or tail of pony? (8) [ST 2481]
The answer, HORSEFLY, is built up from an anagram (torments) of FLESH OR and Y, the tail of pony

And so how do you identify them?

  • they are typically “short and snappy”
  • sometimes, but not always, they have an exclamation mark or question mark at the end
  • the clue reads sensibly as a phrase or sentence

What is an anagram?•••• ^ Back to top of page
An anagram is a word or phrase formed by the letters of another word or phrase, but in a different order. For crosswords, this definition is extended to include forming a word or phrase from an accumulation of parts of words, abbreviations and other constructs. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Light bubbly sorbet (6) [T 109]
An anagram of SORBET gives STROBE which is a type of light. Anagrams are almost invariably signalled by an indicator word or words in the clue, in this case bubbly. The number of anagram indicators is limited only by the imagination of the setter.

Some other examples:

Criminal can hide a large estate in South America! (8 ) [DT 25850]
Criminal indicates an anagram of CAN HIDE A to give HACIENDA, a Spanish word for a ranch or large estate in South America.

Dodgy “charitable” offer folk fly to? (2,4,3,3,4,2,1,5) [T 106]
A magnificent anagram of CHARITABLE OFFER FOLK FLY TO which spread over three clues to give IT FELL OFF THE BACK OF A LORRY. Here dodgy is the anagram indicator and the whole clue also defines the answer.

What is a charade?•••• ^ Back to top of page
Sometimes called a word-sum, a charade is a clue in which the wordplay resembles the parlour game charades. In this game the syllables of a word or phrase are each acted until the answer is guessed. In a crossword clue the answer is achieved by combining a series of parts, where each part contains one or more letters. This is best explained by some examples, all of which are from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Making waves on finding the account unpaid (9) [ST 2478]
Combine BILL (account) and OWING (unpaid) to get BILLOWING (making waves).

Some other examples:

Kitchen item, say, good with British consumer (3,6) [DT 25951]
Combine EG (for example, say) G (Good) B (British) and EATER (consumer) to get EGG BEATER (kitchen item).

Religious instruction niche in church had turned to hopelessness (7) [T 160]
A more complicated example combines RI (Religious Instruction) APSE (niche in church) and ‘D (had, as in I’d meaning I had) which is then reversed (turned) to give DESPAIR (hopelessness).

What is a combination clue?•••• ^ Back to top of page
Sometimes called a complex clue, this is a clue in which two or more different constructs are used. One of the most common combinations is a double definition clue where one or both definitions are themselves cryptic definitions.

An example of a part cryptic double definition:

Doesn’t do enough research into reserve players (12) [DT 25970]
UNDERSTUDIES is cryptically defined as UNDER STUDIES, doesn’t do enough research, and fully defined as reserve players

An example of a reversal inside a definition:

Capsized oarsman in vessel is in distress (8) [DT 25925]
ROWER, an oarsman, is reversed (capsized – this was a down clue) inside CAN, a vessel, to give CAREWORN, in distress or showing signs of anxiety

An example of an anagram inside a definition:

Sampler of drinks given mix of teas in season (4,6) [ST 2487]
WINE TASTER, a sampler of drinks, typically wine, is an anagram (mix) of TEAS inside WINTER (season)

What is a cryptic definition?•••• ^ Back to top of page
Sometimes called a pun, a cryptic definition is one that appears to mean one thing, but when read differently means something else. Homonyms are frequently used in cryptic definitions. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

One suffering from lack of balance (8) [DT 25852]
Not, as you are being led to believe, someone who is liable to fall over, but a BANKRUPT who is suffering from lack of balance, at the bank. Balance, equilibrium, and balance, surplus in an account, are homonyms, albeit with the same etymology.

Some other examples:

This time the game is not in the bag! (5,6) [ST 2474]
A definition of the CLOSE SEASON for pheasant shooting. Once again we have related homonyms.

He’ll tell you spring is here (5,7) [ST 2475]
This appears to be a definition of a harbinger of Spring, but is actually a definition of a WATER DIVINER, who has found a spring. Spring, the season, and spring, a source of water, are homonyms

He hopes to find you well (5-7) [DT 25907]
This appears to be health related, but is also a definition of a WATER-DIVINER, but this time hyphenated! Well, in good health, and well, a source of water, are homonyms.

What is a deletion?•••• ^ Back to top of page
Sometimes referred to as a subtraction, this is where one or more letters are to be deleted from a targeted part of the wordplay in order to obtain the answer. These letters may be in the middle, or at either or both ends, of the target. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Disheartened tinker making a row (4) [T 113]
Disheartened is an instruction to delete the middle letters of TINKER to get TIER, a row.

Some other examples:

Very happy to be associated with dropping introduction (6) [DT 25964]
ELATED, a word meaning very happy, is derived by deleting the initial letter (dropping introduction) from RELATED, a synonym for to be associated with.

Neat chaps possibly caught leaving some game (8) [DT 25963]
Leaving indicates that the C (caught) must be deleted from NEAT CHAPS before resolving the anagram (possibly) to get PHEASANT, a game bird

What is a double definition?•••• ^ Back to top of page
A double definition has two definitions of the same answer. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

Some simple examples:

Genuine old Spanish coin (4) [DT 25865]
REAL as an adjective means genuine and as a noun is an old Spanish coin. It is not unusual for each part of a double definition to be a different part of speech; here it is an adjective and a noun but it could just as easily have been a verb and a noun , as in the next example (from the same puzzle).

Declines in standards (5) [DT 25865]
FLAGS as a verb means declines, but as a noun it could mean standards or banners.

Some other examples:

Extremely upset it had been dashed to pieces (9) [DT 25864]
SHATTERED as an adjective means extremely upset, but as a verb it means dashed to pieces.

What makes this such a clever clue is that several of the words, like extremely, upset and dashed, often indicate other crossword constructs and you may waste time looking for anagrams or word reversals which are not there. This is known as misdirection.

Break off and attend to faulty wiring (4,5) [DT 25876]
To break off is to STOP SHORT; the second definition suggests that if you attend to faulty wiring you will STOP a SHORT circuit.

What are even and odd letters?•••• ^ Back to top of page
This is where the clue requires that either the even or the odd letters be taken from one or more words. Usually, but not always, regular or regularly indicates that the even letters are required. Odd letters are requested by oddly, not even or occasionally by regularly. Although sometimes used as the only construct in the wordplay, this technique is more frequently used in combination with other constructs. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

An example of even letters:

Regulars in hard gang few saw (5) [T 96]
Regulars tells you to take the even letters of hard gang few to get ADAGE, a proverb or saw

Some examples for odd letters:

Odd oratress has rows (4) [DT 25903]
Take the odd letters from oratress to get OARS or rows

Conduct uneven wrangle (4) [T 138]
WAGE, a word meaning conduct, as in to wage war, is the uneven, or odd, letters in wrangle

Fern-owls itch regularly in play (6) [T 112]
This time regularly refers to the odd letters from fern-owls itch to give FROLIC, a synonym for play

Examples of odd letters as part of the wordplay:

Spiritual yet oddly pushy style (7) [T 145]
PSYCHIC, a synonym for spiritual, is derived by taking PSY, the odd letters of pushy, and adding CHIC (style).

Food that millions consume with pride, oddly (4,3) [D 25928]
MEAT PIE is the food that comes from M (millions) and EAT (consume) with the odd letters of pride

What is a hidden word?•••• ^ Back to top of page
This is a word that is in the clue but is hidden within one or more words. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Group of players from Reigate, amateurs (4) [DT 25873]
Here from indicates that TEAM, a group of players is hidden inside Reigate amateurs.

Some other examples:

Gripped by marijuana, the man’s odious (8 ) [DT 25872]
Gripped by indicates that ANATHEMA, a synonym for odious, is hidden inside marijuana the man’s.

Assistant paediatrician shows up (4) [T 111]
The assistant is an AIDE and is hidden backwards in paediatrician. Shows indicates that the answer is hidden in the clue and up indicates that it is reversed.

What is a homophone?•••• ^ Back to top of page
This is a clue in which one word is pronounced the same as another but is different in meaning. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Part of play heard, or otherwise perceived (4) [ST 2485]
A SCENE is part of a play and heard indicates that it sounds like SEEN, a word meaning perceived.

Some other examples:

Spring bloke, it’s reported (6) [DT 25945]
A GEYSER is a hot spring which sounds like (it’s reported) a GEEZER, a bloke.

Heard one saying ‘cheers’ somewhere in East Midlands (9) [T 162]
One saying cheers
is a TOASTER and heard indicates that this sounds like TOWCESTER, a town in Northamptonshire.
Homophones like this are particularly difficult for those who are unfamiliar with the town and the way in which it is pronounced.

What are initial and final letters?•••• ^ Back to top of page
This is where the answer is to be found by taking the first and/or last letters of a number of consecutive words. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

Some examples of initial letters:

Type of guy’s attire, initially (4) [ST 2487]
Initially is an instruction to take the first letters of type of guy’s attire to get TOGA

Do anything rashly, especially initially (4) [DT 25932]
The initial letters of do anything rashly especially spell out DARE.

An example of final letters:

Material gain, say — all go in at last (5) [DT 25964]
NYLON, a type of material, comes from the final (at last) letters of gain say all go in

An example of initial and final letters:

Slithery sort outwardly pretty though overblown (6)
The slithery sort is a PYTHON which comes from the first and last letters of pretty though overblown, as requested by outwardly

What is an insertion?•••• ^ Back to top of page
This is where one or more letters, sometimes referred to as the contents, are to be inserted into the targeted part, or container, of the wordplay in order to obtain the answer. The examples are all from recent Telegraph crosswords.

A simple example:

Aboard boat there’s hard criminal (4) [DT 25851]
Aboard indicates that H (hard) is to be inserted inside TUG (boat) to get THUG, a word meaning criminal

Some other examples:

Turning Labour leader in rebellion (10) [DT 25860]
DEFLECTION, a synonym for turning aside, is built by the insertion of L (Labour leader) into DEFECTION, a synonym for rebellion.

Church seat that’s attached to one spotted entering assurance company (4-4) [T 171]
PRIE-DIEU, a church seat, is very cleverly constructed by inserting IE (that is / that’s) and DIE (singular of dice / one spotted) inside (entering) the PRU (the Prudential / assurance company)

What is a reversal?•••• ^ Back to top of page
A reversal is a clue in which the answer is derived by reversing the result of the wordplay. They frequently occur in combination with other clue constructs, but sometimes appear on their own. Semordnilaps, like the four in the following examples from recent Telegraph crosswords, are useful when solving reversals.

A simple example:

Time’s up! Come out! (4) [DT 25901]
Simply take the word TIME and reverse it to get EMIT, a synonym for to come out. Note that up as a reversal indicator only works with down clues.

Some other examples:

Anxious to give up sweets (8) [ST 2477]
Give up signals that DESSERTS (sweets) is to be reversed to give STRESSED, a synonym for anxious. Note that once again this is a down clue.

Upper class rejecting two prizes (3,6) [DT 25949]
Rejecting is an instruction to reverse two prizes, REWARD and POT, to get TOP DRAWER, a synonym for upper class.

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