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 wordplay. 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 cryptic definitions (see below).
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. Normally this is a word or phrase which might otherwise be used to clue the solution in an ordinary, non-cryptic crossword. 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. In 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.
This may sound intimidating, but one way to think of cryptic crossword clues is that they consist of a non-cryptic clue – such as ‘Animal (6)’ – as well as an extra set of hints that guides you to the answer more precisely. In a sense, a cryptic crossword clue is more generous to solvers than a non-cryptic one!
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.
Reading this straight you might think that the answer is a drone or some other flying object requiring a ‘remote’. 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 designed in a new way (or) an ‘object in the sky’. You need to insert a mental pause after the word ‘remote’. Sometimes it can help to imagine invisible punctuation marks to make the cryptic reading clearer:
‘REMOTE’ designed = object in the sky (6)
The answer is METEOR. The definition part of the clue is ‘object in the sky’, the anagram indicator (as it is called) is ‘designed’ and the anagram letters are from the word ‘remote’.
There are literally thousands of possible anagram indicators. Any word or phrase that suggests confusion, arrangement, strangeness, movement or any of a number of other related concepts can serve. The key thing is that the anagram indicator suggests a process of change for the letters to undergo, so surprisingly both ‘tidying up’ and ‘messing up’ are possible indicators! You may also need to sniff out culinary terms asking you to ‘boil’, ‘stew’ or ‘cook’ the letters into a new form. 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. Charade Clues
In charade clues, two or more words run together to form the solution.
Another way of saying ‘to tantalise’ is ‘TEASE’ and a common abbreviation for ‘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.
3. Container Clues
In these clues a single letter or 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, which must be 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.
4. 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:
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’. Arguably, this means a double definition is twice as helpful as a typical non-cryptic clue, where all the solver has to work with is a single potentially ambiguous definition!
Definitions can also be triple, quadruple and – in rare cases – quintuple, sextuple or more.
Ross will always get the double definition if he knows both definitions and he will often suggest the correct solution even if he only knows one of the two definitions.
Tip to guide beginners: double definition clues are often short.
5. Initial, Final, Alternating and other letter clues
Here the clue tells you to select certain letters from within the clue e.g.
The answer to this is SPAIN, defined by ‘country’.
In the subsidiary indication ‘introductions’ should be read cryptically as meaning ‘the letters which introduce the words’. Taking the first letters of the words ‘Singer Performs Album Including Nice’ spells out the answer!
The same can be done with final letters (look out for ‘tail’, ‘bottom’, ‘back’ etc.) and centre letters (‘heart’, ‘middle’, ‘insides’ etc.). Indicators like ‘regularly’, ‘oddly’ or ‘evenly’ are also used to tell the solver to select alternate letters.
Here letters are removed from a longer word in the cryptic reading. e.g.
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. Often, a setter will use a selection indicator to tell you to select a certain letter alongside a deletion indicator to tell you to remove that letter.
Mistake that puts school children back (4-2)
The answer here is SLIP-UP. The definition is ‘mistake’. ‘School children’ leads you to ‘PUPILS’ and if those letters are 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’, ‘climbing’ etc.
8. 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! Bear in mind that the hidden letters may be cunningly separated by punctuation. Very occasionally the answer is hidden backwards in amongst the letters (a reversal indicator will be used in such cases).
Many cryptic crosswords have one or more hidden word clues in them to give a helping hand to beginners. As these answers are in plain sight, they are often easy to spot if you are looking for them! Look out for the very common indicator ‘in’.
9. ‘Sound Like’ Clues
Here the subsidiary indication tells you about a word that sounds the same as the answer. e.g.
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. – anything suggestive of speech or sound.
10. Cryptic Definitions
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.
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.
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. e.g.
This is a combination of a charade and a deletion of the middle letters. The answer is HARD (defined by ‘firm’). Laugh is substituted for ‘ha!’, ‘oddly’ says one should use only the letters in odd-numbered positions from ‘RuDe’ (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.
Solving cryptic clues gets easier 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!