What cryptic solvers need to know – in one page

Peter Biddlecombe’s advice for new solvers (and some old ones)

I’m writing this as a cheeky alternative to Anax’s pages about “The Rules”. One reason for this is that the fine detail of the rules is for setters and editors to worry about rather than solvers. Take for example, Anax’s advice about “A on B” as part of a charade in an across clue. Although this could logically indicate (A,B) or (B,A), current crossword editors apparently follow a policy that it must indicate B,A. I’ve only known this for a year or so, and will probably never change my approach of just trying the two possibilities for my interpretations of A and B, and seeing which makes a word that fits checking letters and the definition. It’s not going to take me significantly longer, and if I do a puzzle that doesn’t follow this rule, or the editors change their minds, I’m not going to rely on a rule that doesn’t apply. A comment from Don Manley on the announcement posting for this page suggests that the rule is actually specific to the Times puzzle.

Moving on to what you should be worrying about, here are the things I think you must understand.

Knowledge and vocabulary

I’ve put this first because many discussions gloss over it. Although puzzles rely far less on general and literary knowledge than they used to, it still helps. Mostly, you don’t need detailed knowledge, but “wide and shallow” knowledge. A recent Times clue had the “cloisonné” enamelling technique as an answer – if you remembered the word from exotic holiday shopping or watching Antiques Roadshow, that was enough to help you towards the answer, without having to remember exactly what the word meant. I’m sure there was wordplay too, but if you can guess answers like this from the definitions, you can leap ahead. Likewise, if you know lots of words and meanings of words, you’ll see some clues from the definition which others have to get from wordplay. “OK Peter”, you say, “but what do I do to get this knowledge?” I’d say:

  • Approach puzzles with the expectation of learning – you’ll still be learning in 30 years’ time
  • Read widely
  • Read the other pages of the newspaper between solving the crossword and throwing it away
  • Don’t try to “swot for crosswords” (e.g. by memorising lists of rivers) – it’s no fun, and crossword time is best spent solving rather than swotting, as all knowledge has to be used in a puzzle-solving context
  • Watch out for interesting words at all times – I’ve solved clues by remembering words from restaurant menus, covers of Italian road maps, and other bizarre sources

Misleading meanings

This section should possibly have come first. There are clues that consist of two or more definitions, but as well as these, the whole essence of most cryptic clues is to construct surface meanings that lead you towards meanings of words different to the ones used in the cryptic reading. For that reason, thinking of different meanings for words and phrases in the clue is probably the most important skill to learn.


Always remember that every clue should have a definition of some kind, and look first for definitions that are precise, matching the answers as parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.), with the same tense for verb meanings, or number (singular/plural) for noun meanings. There’s one exception to the ‘parts of speech’ point – adjectival phrases are accepted for nouns even by the strictest setters – Ximenean high priest Azed is in print as being happy with “Wags its tail and is man’s best friend” for DOG. If you can’t find a convincing definition for a proposed answer to a clue, be very wary of writing it in without confirmation from plenty of checking letters.

Hiding in plain sight

The best-known example of this technique is the hidden word clue. But clues using the first, last, or other letters of a set of consecutive words in the clue are really playing the same trick. And don’t forget another version of this trick – a wordplay component may be under your nose, if a word in the clue represents the same word in the answer.

Construction kits

This is how I think of clues using charades, containers, anagrams, reversals, subtractions and letter swaps. Except for the lack of indicator words in “same order” charades, the idea behind the clue is always the same – you build the answer from bits and pieces which you put together using instructions in the clue. Which of the methods (possibly more than one) are used doesn’t really matter as long as you interpret the clue correctly, and you don’t need to keep a list of all the clue types in your head.


Homophone clues are a bit of a special case, although homophones for parts of words are seen occasionally as part of construction kit clues. If you speak English with an accent different to the one used by dictionaries (essentially “BBC English” as it used to be), you’ll need to remember things like absent final Rs in words like “fetter” – for crosswords in London-based newspapers this sounds the same as “feta”. Remember that the range of indicators for soundalikes is very limited, so when you see a potential indicator like “we hear” or “on the radio”, a soundalike is very likely.


Cryptic definition clues are worth being aware of because they don’t fit the “definition + wordplay” pattern of most clues. But you’ll often see after solving that the cryptic definition was only cryptic because you saw the wrong word meanings when you read it, so the thing to worry about is our second topic – misleading meanings.

Clichés and surprises

Be aware that there are some well-worn ideas in crossword clues – wordplays like IMP(R)UDENCE or ARM+AGED+DON are hard for setters to resist. So are the old tricks like a “banker” being a river, support=BRA, or “men” meaning O.R. = “other ranks”. But be ready for surprises too – these words meaning something else, a two-word clue being a cryptic def rather than a double def., or hidden word clues for long answers. Never believe anyone who says something is always true in cryptic clues, including the one about definitions always being at the beginning or the end of the clue.

Every word is there for a reason

In good puzzles, there are no superfluous words in clues. You should be able to take a clue and analyse it to show what every word does, and you don’t need fancy knowledge or terminology to do this. Take the clue “Recess is well over before start of exams”, for APSE. With the clue text on the left, this breaks down as:
Recess = definition
is = def/wordplay link
well = SPA
over = reversal indicator, giving APS from SPA
before = indicator for the order of parts in the charade (not needed in the cryptic reading, but allows the surface reading to make sense)
start of ‘exams’ = E
With practice, you’ll learn to do this kind of analysis in your head as you read the clue. If you see a possible answer with some of this breakdown but not all, you may be able to use the same kind of analysis to see which parts of the clue need to provide which parts of the answer and then either explain how they do, or decide that they don’t and reject this answer for the moment.

Definition confirmed by wordplay, or wordplay confirmed by definition?

If your early days of solving are as I remember mine, most of your answers will come from possible definitions in clues, confirmed by the wordplay when you understand it. But you can also use the wordplay first, maybe constructing a word that you don’t know. You’ll probably do your first bits of ‘solving from wordplay’ when you see checking letters strongly suggesting a possible wordplay component. Being able to solve both ways is the ideal – the best solving moment comes when you see the wordplay and definition almost simultaneously, as you read through the clue. If you find solving from wordplay difficult, consider getting a copy of Chambers and trying some of the ‘barred grid’ puzzles like Mephisto (Sunday Times) and Azed (Observer). They will be very difficult at first, but the difficult vocabulary can force you to solve from the wordplay, which is often difficult but usually not quite as obscure as the hardest answer words. Both puzzles are now blogged, which helps a lot. This may seem like running before you can walk, but some expert solvers will tell you that they were completing Azed or Mephisto puzzles regularly before they were finishing a puzzle like the Times every day.