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Introduction to cryptic crosswords

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

This page is designed as a first introduction to cryptic clues for people that are new to them. It also serves as a quick tour of some of the types of clue that the clue solver on this site 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. The knowledge base of this site contains around 3500 and we regularly see new ones suggesting that there are many more. 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.

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

2. Straight Cryptic 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 a computer, the clue solver probably has the most difficulty with this type of clue. However, it is amazing how often it can suggest the answer, even without any checked letters. For example with the second clue it suggests SKIPPING ROPE with the following justification:

SKIPPING ROPE Confidence: 8%
'revolutionary line' is the definition.
I am not sure about the 'revolutionary' bit but 'skipping rope' can be an answer for 'line' (skipping rope is a kind of line).

I cannot understand how the rest of the clue works.

It doesn’t understand the ‘revolutionary’ bit or the reference to ‘jumpers’ but picks the answer up from the word ‘line’! The confidence is relatively high as (8,4) phrases are relatively rare. Adding checked letters would increase the confidence upwards very quickly.

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"

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

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 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 at 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.

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 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. 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 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. The clue solver 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 these cases extra imagination is needed to find the answer.

Although it is unlikely that the clue solver will fully understand the clue in these situations it will often get the answer from the definition or as a last resort from the checked letters.

Where now

Learning to solve cryptic clues improves with practice. A very good first step is become a member if this site. The clue solver tool is an excellent resource for people learning cryptic crosswords as it can solve and explain the answers when you get stuck! If you wish to see how the clue solver works before signing up you are free to try with any of the example clues on this page (which will work for non-members)! The ability to use the clue solver on any crossword clue is a privilege of being a member.

The following books may also be of value:

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