Introduction to cryptic clue solving


The CRYPTIC CROSSWORD HAS always been a primarily British diversion, although it’s not as old as many might think, having only been developed since the 1920s. A cryptic crossword relies on the English language's, ability to mislead (especially in the written form), as well as a few other tricks, that can make a cryptic crossword’s clues, without a little explanation, seem like nonsense to the uninitiated.

The vast majority of clues in cryptic crosswords will consist of two parts, at least one of which will be simply a definition of the answer, but no indication need be given as to where the two parts meet. This is what allows the setter of the cryptic crossword to lead the solver astray, and separating the clue into its two sections can be half the battle when searching for the answer. Cryptic crossword clues tell you the length of the solution in brackets after the clue, usually separated into individual word lengths if it is more than one word.

Some clues will just contain two definitions, one after the other, and usually with no word in between, although certain words (such as “and” and “is”) may be allowable. Definitions in cryptic crosswords are not always precise quotes from the dictionary but should be fairly accurate. Some poetic license is allowed; for example, a particular river could be defined as a flower (i.e. something that flows). An example of a double-definition clue is: “create vegetables and fruits (7).” “Create” and “vegetables and fruits” are both definitions o the answer: “produce,” the former as a verb and the latter as a collective noun.

It is worth mentioning at this point that occasionally you will come across a clue that doesn't actually contain a strict definition, but that requires a bit of lateral thinking. Usually, this type of clue will contain just one definition with no other part, but the definition will be a clever one, which although just about accurate, will certainly not be what you'd find in a dictionary! An example of this nonstandard type of clue is: ''So before this is good-bye (4)'' as a clue for the word ''long'' because the word ''so'' before the word "long'' gives you ''so long” which means ''good-bye.'' Such definitions may even crop up in a normal clue, with a second part to the clue as well to help you further.

Though some cryptic clues will fall into the categories mentioned in the two previous paragraphs, most will consist of a definition of the answer, either preceded or followed by a subsidiary indication (the cryptic part of the clue). It is these subsidiary parts that are the key to a cryptic crossword, and I will outline some of the common techniques used below. It will by no means be a complete list though, as there is no real limit to what can be done, as long as the clue explains what you should do. Note also that more than one of these techniques may be combined together in a single clue. Any punctuation in a clue can largely be ignored, although a question mark may indicate a fairly loose definition. The key thing to remember is that whatever wordplay is involved - anagrams, one word inside another, homophones (words that sound the same), or whatever it might be - the clue should always tell you what to do, using indicators.


A common cryptic cluing technique, often providing the easiest clues to get started with, is anagrams. As explained above, if an anagram is involved in the clue, there must be something in the clue to indicate it. There are huge numbers of anagram indicators - anything that suggests movement (e.g. “motion’, “arranged”, “around”, ''about''''out of place'', or just ''out''), strangeness (e.g., ''odd '', ''funny''), badness (e.g., ''poor'', ''off '', ''broken''), alteration (e.g., ''changed", ''new"), uncertainty (e.g., ''perhaps'', ''possibly''), and anything similar. The indicator may come before or after the letters to be jumbled, although some indicators will only make sense on one side.


·      Change of heart for our planet (5) - as a clue for EARTH (anagram of heart)
·      Kate arranged to confiscate (4) - a clue for TAKE (anagram of Kate)
·      Permanent organisation hits stablemen badly (13) - as a clue for ESTABLISHMENT (anagram of hits stablemen)

Hidden Word

You will sometimes come across a clue where the answer is simply hidden inside a phrase, with the letters in the correct order, though you may have to ignore punctuation and spaces. This must be indicated, although it can be indicated by very short words that are easy to miss. Indicators may include ''hides'', ''contains'', ''a section of''''some of'' (or just ''some''), ''in part'', ''in'', ''from'', or even just ''of'' (in the sense that the answer is ''of'' (ie., belonging to) the phrase in question). Some indicators may be used before the phrase that hides the answer, and some after, whichever makes sense. Occasionally, a word will be hidden backwards in a word or phrase, but there must be something there to tell you (e.g., ''hidden backwards in'' or ''reversed part of'').


·      Your opening hides cord (4) - as a clue for ROPE (youR OPEning)
·      Partly create the ram's restraint (6) - as a clue for TETHER (creaTE THE
·      Some people eat this man (3)-as a clue for LEE (peoplE EAt)


Some cryptic clues make use of words that sound like each other, but again, it must be indicated in the clue that this is the case. This can be indicated by things like ''say'', ''we hear'', ''reportedly'', or even something a little more clever like ''on the radio.''


·      Very large framework of bars, it's said (5) - as a clue for GREAT (very large), which sounds like GRATE (framework of bars)
·      Reportedly satisfactory food (4) - as a clue for FARE (food), which sounds like FAIR (satisfactory)
·      Blocked the sound of poet (6) - as a clue for BARRED (blocked), which sounds like BARD (poet)

Single Letters or Groups of Letters

These largely fall into two categories - common abbreviations and acronyms on the
one hand, and starts, middles, and ends of words on the other. Obviously, these will generally be used to form only part of the cryptic part of the clue, although sometimes a series of such things may be put together to form the answer.

In the case of abbreviations and acronyms, these may be indicated simply by the word they are short for (e.g., ''north'' for the letter ''N''''time'' for the letter ''T''''emergency room'' for ''ER''), but the references may also be less obvious (e.g., ''direction''''bearing'' or ''point'' for any compass point, ''turn'' for ''U'', as in ''U-turn''''way'' for ''ST'', as in ''street''''sailor'' for ''AB'', an abbreviation for ''able-bodied seaman''''concerning''''in reference to'', or ''about'' for ''RE''''notice'' for ''advertisement'' for ''AD''). Most of the abbreviations used in cryptic crosswords should be available in a thorough dictionary.

When the start, middle, or end of a word is to be used, this must also be indicated, but again, some are more obvious than others. So for example, ''Beethoven’s first'' might represent the letter ''B'' (the first letter of Beethoven); ''the middle of March'' for either the letter ''R'' or the group of letters ''ARC''; ''German leader'' for the letter ''G'' (i.e., the leader - leading letter of the word ''German''); ''a bit of difficulty'' for the letter ''D'' ''half-time'' for the letters ''Tl''; ''egghead'' for the letter ''E'' (head of the word ''egg''); ''final countdown'' for the letter ''N'' (the final letter of the word ''countdown''). Things like ''initially'', ''at first'' or ''finally'' make regular appearances. Also note that words such as ''empty'', ''heartless'' and ''extremely'' may indicate to remove the middle of a word (e.g., ''empty promise'' for the letters ''PE'' and ''extremely happy'' for the letters ''HY'', the extremes of the word ''happy'').

There are many ways to represent single letters or small groups of letters, and some don't really fall into either of the two categories above, so always be on the lookout for a word or phrase that might represent a small number of letters or just a single letter. Another commonly used indicator is ''key'' or ''note'' to represent any letter from ''A'' to ''G'' - the notes and keys used in music. Also commonly used are ''hesitation'' to represent ''ER'' or ''UM,'' and Roman numerals (e.g., 6 to represent Vl).

Other common examples:

·      ''The French'' for ''LE '', ''LA'' or “LES'', and similarly with ''of French'', ''of the French'' and ''a French'', and sometimes used with basic German and Spanish words as well
·      Abbreviations for the States of the USA (''California'' for CA, ''New York'' for NY, etc.)
·      The NATO phonetic alphabet - for example, ''golf'' for ''G'', ''Yankee'' for ''Y'', etc.
·      Chemical symbols, and also ''gold'' for OR (from heraldry) or AU
·      Any recognised abbreviation - you may not have come across them all before!


Some or all of the cryptic part of a clue may involve a reversal of a certain word or selection of letters. Indicators for this include ''turning'', ''going back'', ''around'', ''about'', and ''over'', and for down clues things like ''rising'' and ''brought up'' would also be acceptable. Be careful not to assume that a reversal indicator refers to all of the other parts of the clue; it may just refer to the word immediately preceding or following it, or somewhere in between.


·      Contrivance for catching animals, with portion turning (4) - as a clue for TRAP (contrivance for catching animals), which is PART (portion) the other way round
·      Return alcoholic drink of a monarch (5) - as a clue for REGAL (of a monarch), which is LAGER (alcoholic drink) the other way round


Another common technique in cryptic crosswords is to require the solver to remove a letter, or group of letters, from one word to get to the answer, or a section of the answer. This might be indicated by words such as ''without'', ''lacking'', ''wanting'', or ''out'', and words such as ''no'' or ''not'' may also tell you to remove something (e.g. ''no time'' might mean remove the letter ''T''; ''not half'' may tell you to remove half of a word). You may also come across things like ''nearly'', ''almost'', or ''mostly'' to indicate that you will leave off the end of a word, or ''headless'' to tell you to leave out the first letter.


·      Left out of void business establishment, dealing with money (4) - as a clue for BANK (business establishment, dealing with money), which is BLANK (void) without the letter ''L'' (left)
·      Nearly locating protest (3-2) - as a clue for SIT-IN (protest), which is SITING (locating), nearly
·      Headless man with time for insect (3) - as a clue for ANT (insect), which is AN (man without its first letter) with ''T'' (abbreviation for time)


Many cryptic clues require you to put one set of letters inside another to get to the solution ( i.e. a group of letters ''containing'' others, or ''sandwiched'' by others). There will always be some kind of indicator to suggest that this must be done, and it can be from either point of view - one thing going inside another, or something being on the outside of something else. For example, phrases used in this type of clue include ''A in B'', ''A caught by B'', ''B without A'' (''without'' here means the opposite of ''within''), ''A surrounds B'', and ''B's entry into A'' (''A'' and ''B'' here represent groups of letters and/or words, or possibly a single letter in certain cases, which may have been clued by a variety of the techniques already mentioned above). There are many other words which may be used though.


·      Exchanged for money without one sound (5) - as a clue for SOLID (sound), which is SOLD (exchanged for money) outside of (without) l (one)
·      Color captured in instrument (8) - as a clue for CLARINET (instrument), which is CLARET (colour) having ''captured'' ''IN''
·      Holy piece of furniture, with not so much on the inside (7) - as a clue for BLESSED (holy), which is BED (piece of furniture) with LESS (not so much) inside it

Other Clues

Most of the common techniques used in cryptic crosswords have now been covered, but you may occasionally come across other things, which should always be indicated in some way. Here are a few such things:

·      Taking every other letter of a phrase (indicated by something like ''every other'' or ''regularly'', or even ''odds of'' to indicate taking the 1st, 3rd, and 5th letters, and so on)
·      Using a phrase like ''back to front'' to indicate you need to take the last letter of a word and move it to the front
·      Spoonerisms-swapping the first sounds of two syllables of a word or phrase (e.g. ''sore fight'' for ''foresight''). So the clue might be ''Spooner's painful battle shows prudence (9)''. This comes from the Englishman William Spooner, who had a reputation for getting his words muddled in such a way.


Remember that many of the ideas mentioned above may be combined in one clue, and also that the words to be reversed, put inside another, or whatever it might be, will not often be the actual word that appears in the clue, but another word that is
defined by the one that you see. The exception to this is anagrams, although there may still be single letters or groups of letters involved in the anagram represented by a longer word in the clue. Here are some more examples:

·      Produce eastern part to make smaller gradually (5) - as a clue for TAPER (to make smaller gradually), which is an anagram of E-PART (where the letter ''E'' comes from ''eastern'' and ''produce'' is the anagram indicator)
·      Some movement without returning, or being gloomy (6) - as a clue for MOROSE (gloomy), which is an anagram of SOME (some movement) outside of (without) RO (''or'' being returned, i.e. going backwards). ''Being'' just acts as a link between the two parts of the clue, in the sense that the first part is ''being'' the answer. It is true here that ''or'' could actually have been inserted without going backwards, so that was done purely to make the clue harder.
·      Prevents the uppermost point going on board (5) - as a clue for STOPS (prevents). This uses a clever (and regularly used) reference to the abbreviation ''SS'' for a (steam)ship, so ''on board'' means inside a ship (i.e. within the letters ''SS''). Here, TOP is defined by ''the uppermost point'' and it goes inside ''SS'' (''on board'' the ship) to get STOPS.

There is one type of clue that has not been mentioned so far, where the whole clue provides both the definition and the cryptic part in one go. In other words, the whole clue is the cryptic part, but it also forms a definition (often not particularly precise) of the answer. For example: ''Is he with an extremely potent performance? (8)'' - as a clue for THESPIAN; it is an anagram (''performance'') of IS-HE-AN-PT (where ''PT'' comes from ''extremely potent,” the extremes of the word potent), but the whole clue also (loosely) defines the answer. This is often known as an “&Lit” clue.

Solving clues

So what is the best way to go about solving a cryptic crossword clue? Many people look out for clues that may use an anagram first, although you may also want to look out for obvious abbreviations. The key to solving cryptic clues in reality is not to read each clue as a whole sentence; try to think of another word for the first word(s) and last word(s) of the clue, and see if you can use the rest of the clue to get you to that answer. If you see the clue ''Change left in new rate (5)'' for example, you might think, ''What is a five-letter word that can mean ''change'', or a five-letter word that can mean ''rate''? Among the things that might come to mind would be ''alter'' to mean ''change'', and then you can see that ''L'' (for left) inside an anagram of ''rate'' gets you there. Often, it will be pretty clear that either the beginning or end of the clue is just some kind of indicator and not the definition, and then you can concentrate on thinking of what the other end of the clue is a definition of.

Don't expect to always get each clue the first time. If you don't solve it initially, move on and come back to it once you have some other letters entered in the grid to help you. Certainly don't think it is cheating to use a dictionary - particularly in more difficult puzzles, there may be words or references that you have not heard of. The beauty of cryptic crosswords is that you still have a chance to solve them using the subsidiary part of the clue if you have a dictionary on hand.

We hope this introduction has given you the necessary knowledge to take on the challenge of the Cryptonites Blogpost. Good luck!

We welcome any comments you may have.

Introduction taken from “The Everything Cryptic Crosswords Book”, by Geraint Tucker.