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A Guide to Solving Cryptic Clues

Cryptic clues have two parts: a definition of the answer word and some wordplay. The definition is the same as in any standard crossword puzzle and consists of either a synonym or a brief descriptive phrase. The wordplay, however, may take any of several forms. They are: two definitions, anagrams, reversals, homophones, components, enclosures, truncations, substitutions, codes, and puns. A single clue may combine one or more of these devices. All of them are explained and illustrated below.

The two parts of a clue, definition and wordplay, are combined in no special order and with deliberate intent to confuse, but once you see through the confusion and find the answer, you'll know for sure that it's the right one. Cryptic clues have none of the ambiguity of standard crossword puzzle clues, because wordplay and definition independently confirm the answer. For that reason, and also because they present a greater challenge, cryptic clues are more satisfying to solve than the standard kind.

Click on each of the wordplays to learn more.

Two definitions are just that, two definitions strung together with or without punctuation to form a misleading phrase. (Punctuation in a cryptic clue is always meant to mislead. Your best bet is to ignore it completely.) The word FLAG, for instance, can mean either "to signal" or "to get weak." A cryptic definition, therefore, might be "get weak signal." Similarly, if the clue is "game beaters," the answer has to be HEARTS. [top]

Anagrams are rearrangements of the letters of the answer word and are always indicated in the clue by words such as "changed," "edited," "strange," "crazy," "odd," "wild," and the like. Take the clue "enraged, disturbed, furious." The only possible answer is ANGERED. The clue tells you in effect that if the letters of ENRAGED are "disturbed" (that is, anagrammed) they lead to a synonym for "furious," ANGERED. Although three other anagrams of ENRAGED are possible, DERANGE, GRANDEE, and GRENADE, you know that ANGERED has to be the right answer because of the synonym "furious." Here are two more examples. "College graduate edited manual" obviously leads to the answer ALUMNA, and "unruly cart horse led by conductor" can only lead to ORCHESTRA. [top]

Reversals are words that, when spelled backwards, form other words. Reversals are always identified as such. If the clue reads "get beat when game turns around," it means that GOLF turned around leads to the answer FLOG. Similarly, "when draftsman returns, it's for recompense" means that DRAWER, read backwards, gives the answer REWARD. [top]

Homophones are two words that sound alike but are spelled differently. They are always identified by hints such as "sound of," "spoken," "heard," and so forth. The clue "hear appeal of victim" gives the answer PREY because it sounds like PRAY, while the clue "'sounding brass' is a sign of something" yields the answer SYMBOL because it sounds like CYMBAL. [top]

Components are parts of answer words that are words in their own right. A clue may define both the answer word and its component word parts. For example, the clue for FARTHING, whose components are FAR and THING, could be "money a distant object." Once you learn to think in that vein, it will not take you long to see that "lying to restore a town" leads to the answer MENDACITY. Things get more complicated when words are embedded within words. For example, if you insert ROWS in BED, you get the word BROWSED, an appropriate clue for which might be "casually examined lines in the sack." [top]

Enclosures are words contained within longer words or phrases. You will immediately recognize "city in Czechoslovakia" as OSLO, although it may take you a moment's reflection to realize that the clue "from gust or mistral comes a tempest" has the answer STORM (guST OR Mistral). [top]

Truncations are words that result from shortening a longer word by one or more letters. Here are two simple examples: "Not quite finished dressing bird" gives ROBIN, a truncation of ROBING, while "Waste away without a prize" gives TROPHY, ATROPHY without A. A more complicated truncation is in the clue, "Al leaves bird a line," which leads to STRING, or STARLING without A and L. [top]

Substitutions mean that one word can be turned into another by the substitution of one or more letters. Thus, GRAND becomes GRANT when T is substituted for D, and you'll know that GRANT is the answer if the clue reads, "Time to replace 500 stolen from 1000 award." [top]

Codes are single letters or letter combinations that—in general usage or in specialized fields such as music, science, mathematics, and the like—stand for specific words. For example, "adjective" can mean the letter A, "bachelor" the letter B, "hundred" the letter C, "unknown" the letter X, "year" the letter Y, and "atomic number" the letter Z. "Saint" suggests the letters ST, "gold" the letters AU, and "very loud" the letters FF. Other devices include, "first of January" for J, "leader of men" for M, "heart of gold" for OL, and "end of tether" for R. Here's an example of the use of codes in a clue. The word SHACK may be thought of as either S plus HACK or H embedded in SACK. S is often used as the abbreviation for "south" or "southern," while H in chemistry is the symbol for hydrogen. Thus, two distinct definitions are possible: "southern writer's humble dwelling," or "bag with gas found in cabin." Both definitions are admittedly recherché, but puzzle words are not always cooperative and sometimes require rough handling. [top]

Puns may be the lowest form of humor, but they are the bread and butter of cryptic clues. Here are three examples: "Dollars for quarters" leads to the answer RENT; "toasting the poet" to BROWNING; and "had enough heggs" to EXASPERATED (eggs aspirated, of course). [top]

Exasperated? Don't give up yet. It's true that writers of cryptic clues do their best to mislead you, but at the same time they try very hard to be fair. They want to puzzle you, but they also carefully construct every clue so that you will be sure of the answer once you find it. You may need a little imagination to reconstruct their twisted ways of thinking, but once you do, you'll see that there's method in their madness.

MADNESS. "Confused and in a state of disorder or insanity." AND confused (that is, anagrammed) in MESS, get it? [top]