Cryptic Crossword Guide

Cryptic Crossword Guide

This page is a beginners’ guide to cryptic crossword clues for those who are learning or wish to get into this exciting form of puzzle.

Cryptic crossword puzzles are widely considered the ultimate challenge for lovers of word-play. They are highly entertaining and highly addictive!

Our Crossword Genius app has been developed to enable people to enjoy cryptic crosswords on their phone. Using the scan feature you are able to point your phone camera at a printed crossword and the modern machine vision techniques read in the grid and clues so you can solve the crossword on your device. Also included within the app is our handy helper Ross – an artificial intelligence who can explain and solve clues for users when asked. Ross is the ultimate cryptic crossword guide.

This guide will serve as a quick tour of some of the types of cryptic clue that the app can solve. The information is applicable to cryptic crosswords found around the world though there are some slight differences. For example, the editors of American cryptics tend to be far stricter about what is and isn’t acceptable and the puzzles don’t often include straight cryptic definitions (see later).

The word cryptic is defined by Chambers as ‘hidden; secret; unseen; mysteriously obscure’. Clues in cryptic puzzles are just like that. To understand them you have to read them in a very devious way. What the clue appears to be defining on the surface is designed as a distraction and is almost never what it really means. However, to be fair, the clue will always tell you what the answer is (usually more than once), even if you have to twist your brain inside out to read the clue in the way that tells you!

All cryptic clues have a definition and this definition is almost always at one end or another of the clue. Finding where it starts and finishes is part of the challenge.

A cryptic clue usually has a second part as well, called the subsidiary indication. This also leads you to the word but it does so using some devious wordplay. When reading the subsidiary indication words may mean the letters that make them up, other words that mean the same thing or they may refer to an operation that you do on the other words to spell out the answer.

Let’s look at some specific types by way of illustration:

1. Anagram Clues

In an anagram clue, the subsidiary indication contains the letters of the answer and an indication that the letters should be rearranged or are not presently in the right order. A correct rearrangement gives the solution. e.g.

Unusually remote celestial body (6)

Reading this straight you would think that the answer is a star or something that is millions of light-years away. However, this is a cryptic clue so it won’t be that obvious. The way to read it is: The letters R,E,M,O,T,E ordered in an unusual way (or) a ‘celestial body’ You need to insert a mental pause after the word ‘remote’. Punctuated to help the cryptic reading it would be:

Unusually: “REMOTE”; Celestial body (6)

The answer is METEOR. The definition part of the clue is ‘celestial body’, the anagram indicator (as it is called) is ‘unusually’ and the anagram letters are from the word ‘remote’.

There are literally thousands of possible anagram indicators. Any word or phrase that connotes confusion, arrangement, deviousness, change or any of a number of other related concepts can serve. The anagram letters may be taken from any number of words.

Anagram clues are often one of the easiest for a beginner to spot as often you can see one or more words that have the same number of letters as the answer and an anagram indicator next to them.

Ross can solve anagram clues very readily and with a high degree of confidence. (In fact, he can usually solve them even when he doesn’t recognise the anagram indicator.)

2. Straight Cryptic or &Lit Clues

This is one of the rare breeds of clue that doesn’t have a subsidiary indication. Instead the deviousness comes from reading the definition in a peculiar way. For example:

Accommodation that’s barred for flappers (4-4)

The intended answer is BIRD-CAGE. Here barred doesn’t mean prohibited but having bars and flappers refers to things that flap i.e. birds with wings.

Another example:

Revolutionary line for jumpers (8,4)

The intended answer is SKIPPING ROPE. Here, ‘revolutionary’ means ‘revolving’ rather than radical and ‘jumpers’ are not pullovers but people that jump!

Incidentally, using words ending -ER in an unusual way is common practice for cryptic crosswords. Another example is ‘flower’ meaning not a colourful plant but something that flows (e.g. a river). ‘Revolver’ has even been used to define TURNTABLE.

Understandably for our artificial intelligence, Ross probably has the most difficulty with this type of clue. However, it is amazing how often he can suggest the answer, even without any checked letters.

3. Double Definition Clues

Here the subsidiary indication is replaced by a second definition. Often these clues are short, perhaps two or three words. An example:

Clear as a document (8)

The answer to this is an eight-letter word that can mean both ‘clear’ and ‘document’. The answer is MANIFEST. The way to read this clue cryptically is to imagine it is asking for a synonym of “clear” that is the same (“as”) a word for “a document”

Ross will always get the double definition if he knows both definitions and he will often suggest it even if he only knows one of the two definitions.

Tip to guide beginners: double definition clues are often short.

4. Charade Clues

In charade clues, two or more words run together to form the solution.

To tantalise the left is a plant (6)

Another way of saying ‘to tantalise’ is ‘tease’ and is a common abbreviation for ‘the left’ is ‘l’. When those two are next to each other (as they are in the clue) they spell the word ‘teasel’ which is a type of plant. Sometimes the joining together of the words is explicitly stated with words and phrases like ’after’, ‘running to’ and so on. For down clues words like ‘below’, ‘above’ etc. might be used.

Abbreviations such as ‘left’ being substituted for ‘l’ are a very common feature of cryptic clues as the setter often has to find a way of indicating one and two letter combinations. With experience you will recognise many of the common abbreviations used.

5. Container Clues

In these clues the letters of one word are inserted into another.

Widest and best way inside (8)

The answer is BROADEST. ‘ Widest’ is the definition and ‘best way inside’ is the subsidiary indication read cryptically as ‘the letters BEST with the letters ROAD placed inside them’. A road is a kind of ‘way’ in the sense of a route.

This clue contains a link – the word ‘and’ – which separates the definition from the subsidiary indication. Container clues are very common and the indicator can appear between the two words, at one end or the other. Depending on what it is, it can also indicate either word being placed inside the other.

Container indicators include ‘outside’, ‘around’, ‘without’, ‘crossing’, ‘sheltering’, ‘is eaten by’ and hundreds of others.

6. Hidden Word Clues

Sometimes the answer is shown, with correct spelling, directly within the clue. e.g.

More lice are found to contain what remains (5)

The answer is RELIC (defined by ‘what remains’). The subsidiary indication says that the letters MORELICE contain the answer, which they do! Very occasionally the answer is hidden backwards in amongst the letters.

As a guide for beginners many cryptic crosswords have one or more hidden word clues in them. As these answers are in plain sight they are often easy to spot if you are looking for them!

7. ‘Sound Like’ Clues

Here the subsidiary indication tells you about a word that sounds the same as the answer. e.g.

By the sound of it, I’ll row (5)

The answer here is AISLE, ‘row’ is the definition and the subsidiary indication when read correctly says that the answer sounds like I’ll which it does.
Other sound like indicators include ‘say’, ‘it’s said’, ‘reportedly’, ‘one hears’ etc.

8. Reversals

Mistake that puts school children back (4-2)

The answer here is SLIP-UP. The definition is ‘mistake’ and when ‘pupils’ is substituted for ‘school children’ and the letters reversed in order you get the answer.
Note that for down clues, the cryptic reversal indicator may have connotations of going up, e.g. words like ‘uprising’, ‘going North’ etc.

9. Deletions

Here letters are removed from a longer word in the cryptic reading. e.g.

Swimmer in underwear abandoning the lake (4)

The answer is LING a type of fish defined by ‘swimmer’.

To solve the subsidiary indication, you need to substitute LINGERIE for ‘underwear’ and remove (‘abandon’) the letters ERIE, the name of one of the great lakes.

Other forms of deletion include removing the first, last or middle letters. Indicators include words like ‘short’, ‘topless’, ‘hollow’ etc.

10. Initial, Final, Alternating and other letter clues


Tree begins autumn pruning, putting leaves everywhere (5)

The answer to this is APPLE, defined by ‘tree’.

In the subsidiary indication ‘begins’ should be read cryptically as meaning ‘the beginning letters of’. Taking the first letters of the words ‘Autumn Pruning Putting Leaves Everywhere’ spells out the answer!

The same can be done with final letters and even alternating letters and centre letters.

11. Combinations of types

Setters would not make cryptic crosswords so simple that all clues correspond to one of the above types.

Very often more than one of the above techniques are combined to make the subsidiary indication even more challenging. Ross can deal with these just as easily.

Laugh at round ends? It’s tough (4)

This is a combination of a charade and a deletion of the middle letters. The answer is HARD (defined by ‘tough’). Laugh is substituted for HA, ‘ends’ says one should take the end letters of ‘round’ and throw the rest away (i.e. RD) and ‘at’ says the two should go together to spell HARD.

It’s indecent to let little Albert roam around inside (6)

This is a combination of an anagram and a container. The answer is AMORAL (defined, as ‘indecent’). ‘Little Albert’ is substituted for AL (‘little’ indicates an abbreviation rather than a small child). ‘around’ is an anagram indicator saying that the letters of ‘roam’ need to be moved around, in this case to make MORA and ‘inside’ says that they go inside AL. Placing MORA inside AL spells out the answer!

12. Miscellaneous Clues

There are numerous other rare things that setters sometimes do in cryptic clues. The above types cover most of what one finds but a setter will occasionally deploy another imaginative way to denote the answer.

Where now?

Learning to solve cryptic clues improves with practice. A very good first step is to download the Crossword Genius app as it is an excellent resource for people learning cryptic crosswords as Ross can solve and explain the answers when you get stuck!