Cryptic Crosswords – The Rules by Anax

Containers / Insertions

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The container/insertion device is one that’s in the list of devices which require indicators, in other words the setter must use some form of wording to suggest that something is contained within or surrounds something else.

Before we start, though, now is a good time to mention that there is a fundamental difference between container/insertion and hidden wordplay. The two are often confused, which is understandable given how closely they appear to be related. We’ll move on to the hidden device next time but, in a nutshell, a hidden clue is one where the letters of the answer are presented to you, in uninterrupted order, within a word or words in the clue; thus FREIGHTER hides the word EIGHT, and FRENCH AND SAUNDERS hides the words HANDS.

So, on to container/insertion wordplay. Here’s a basic, if moderately tough, example:

Pouch used to carry one’s own pies, buns etc (6)

The answer is BAKING. So we start with BAG (pouch) and in wordplay terms this is used to carry (in other words it contains) KIN (one’s own, as in family). “Pies, buns etc” defines the answer.

Having spotted BAG as peripheral letters in the answer it was always likely that the setter would use these as a container, but switching things around and inserting KIN into BAG is equally valid:

Pies, buns etc of one’s own in pouch (6)

Here the answer consists of KIN (one’s own) in BAG (pouch). The clue is fine although not quite as smooth as the first example, and a setter will generally explore both container and insertion options before settling on the one which gives the better surface reading.

There are four ways of describing one component inside another. The setter can say:

X is placed around Y

X is placed inside Y

X has Y placed around it

X has Y placed within it

Although complex clues (which feature more than one type of wordplay device) will be covered in a future piece, they are going to have a role here because answers which lend themselves to precisely one wordplay element inside another are far from abundant. Well, perhaps that’s not completely true – it’s more the case that to create a good surface reading the setter may choose to break down components into separate bits (i.e. charades) before placing them inside or outside something else. The following example uses two abbreviations:

Moss-covered area right for martial art (6)

To find the answer KARATE we take A (abbreviation for area) and R (abbreviation for right) and cover these with KATE (a reference to the model Kate Moss). It might have been possible to use the single insertion component RA (a sun god) but, after several attempts, this setter at least failed to come up with anything that had a convincing surface reading.

Because we have used the separate bits A and R these form a charade, which is then placed inside a container word, so the result is a complex clue.

Some setters will try to disguise the container/insertion indicator as deviously as they can, but great care is needed – especially when using multiple components – to make sure the rules of grammar and syntax aren’t broken. Here’s a faulty clue:

A good sandwich crust is not exactly demanding (6)

On first reading it appears to be quite clever, using A and G (abbreviation for good) placed around (i.e. sandwiching) SKIN (crust) to give the answer ASKING, defined as not exactly demanding. There is a problem though, which we can see if we place vertical lines between wordplay and definition:

A good sandwich crust | is | not exactly demanding (6)

A and G have been treated plurally, hence the container indicator is given as sandwich. The link word is has been used to show that the result of the wordplay is the answer ASKING – thus it’s shown as a singular form; to match the syntax of the clue, sandwich would have to be sandwiches or sandwiching. Although the surface reading suffers marginally (and that’s only because the original version contains just a smidgen of humour), the problem can be fixed by changing the clue to:

Not exactly demanding a good sandwich crust (6)

This time we’ve dropped is altogether, so the syntax of the wordplay doesn’t have to match up to anything.

When it comes to syntax, the setter is not bound by strict logic or arithmetic. In the KARATE and ASKING examples, the two charade components A R and A G respectively can in fact be treated as singular as well as plural. To simplify things we’ll refer to them as X and Y. The setter can think of these as “X Y is…” or “X Y are…” depending on which form works better with the rest of the clue. Here’s an example:

Very good sandwich the aim in such a machine? (7)

Here we have V (very) and G (good) are around (sandwich) END (the aim) and IN to give VENDING (as in vending machine). The setter may feel that the following version better reflects the idea that a vending machine will usually contain an array of sandwiches:

Very good sandwiches the aim in such a machine? (7)

This time the wordplay starts by saying V (and) G is around (thus sandwiches) the rest of the wordplay, and it’s just as valid.


OK, so when it comes to complex wordplay involving container and insertion devices, what’s allowable and what’s not? There was a huge stink on a clue-writing forum when the following clue appeared:

A juke box versus a more modern version? (7)

We really need to break this down into its components to see how it works:

A | juke | box | versus | a more modern version? (7)

A is simply the first letter of the answer without disguise.

JUKE is an old word meaning DANCE (it is in fact the derivation of jukebox).

BOX is a container indicator.

VERSUS leads to the abbreviation V.

The rest of the clue is the definition of the answer.

So we have A and DANCE which are placed around V to give ADVANCE, which pretty much satisfies the definition. So why the hue and cry?

The argument was that because only the DANCE component was placed around V, box was incorrect – it would have to be boxes/boxing to make grammatical sense.

Wrong! An important thing to bear in mind when solving cryptic clues is to imagine what the setter thinks you should be doing with wordplay components as you discover them. In the above clue the aim is that you should end up writing:


Then you should be thinking about where to place the letter V to find the answer, and the setter’s only obligation is to say the letter V appears somewhere within that sequence. As you can see, there’s no separating of components into whole words – it is merely a sequence of individual letters. Grammar and syntax are important when matching up wordplay indicators, but not when it comes to sequences of letters which will be used to find the answer.


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