Placeholder Picture

The Hathway Guide to Cryptic Crosswords

  1. Introduction
  2. Basics
  3. Synonyms/double definitions
  4. Backwards
  5. Charade
  6. Anagrams
  7. Hidden words
  8. Homophones or ‘Sound-alikes’
  9. Words Within Words
  10. Individual letters
  11. Removals
  12. Accents
  13. Foreign words
  14. Quotations
  15. Allusions/References
  16. Pure Cryptic Crosswords
  17. Whole Clue Definitions
  18. Rearrangement of words
  19. Spoonerisms
  20. Abbreviations
  21. Crossword language
  22. Crossword pronunciation
  23. Links between clues
  24. Hints and tricks
  25. What Makes a Good Crossword?
  26. Specialist puzzles
  27. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Cryptic crosswords are a game played between the setter ‐ the person who makes up the crossword ‐ and you, the solver. Like all games, it has rules, and this guide is an explanation of the rules. It is important that you feel the setter has stuck to the rules, and that you don’t feel cheated; if you aren’t enjoying it, what’s the point of the game? After all, you can turn the page or throw the crossword away any time you want.

In terms of difficulty, the standards vary between individual setters on papers, but we rate the nationals (starting from the easiest) as: Daily Mail; Daily Telegraph; Observer; Sunday Telegraph; Sunday Times; Private Eye; Independent on Sunday; Guardian; The Times; Financial Times.

At the end of this guide is a link to six crosswords to start on. We’ve tried to use examples of everything that’s been covered, and we’ve tried to show you how each clue is constructed.

2. Basics

A crossword grid contains a number of words which cross each other. These grids in cryptic crosswords are usually 15 x 15 squares, although they may me more for competitions or special events. Grids contain black blocks to separate words, and these are called Block Grids. There are also grids which don't contain black squares; in these, words are separated from each other by thicker black lines, or bars. These are called Bar Grids.

Examples of Grids:

Block Grid

Crossword Block Grid

Bar Grid

Crossword Bar Grid

You will see numbers in each grid. These correlate with the numbers of the clues. Clues are indicated by this number, in the ACROSS or DOWN section of the clues. (‘Across’ means the answer runs across the grid, a letter to each square, ‘Down’ mean it runs down.) There is a number or numbers after the clue. This indicates the shape of the answer. A simple (7) will just indicate a seven‐letter word; (3,4) will indicate a two‐word phrase ‐ e.g. Put Down; (3‐4) indicates a hyphenated word or phrase ‐ e.g. Oil‐rigs. By convention, possessives are ignored, so the answer Hobson’s Choice would be indicated as (7,6).

Each clue in a cryptic crossword comes in two halves, which give you two different ways of arriving at the same answer and thus reinforce each other. At its simplest level, this makes a cryptic crossword easier to solve than the so‐called simple ones.

Suppose you saw this clue:

British river (6)

This could be the Thames, the Severn, Medway, Mersey, Humber etc. You’ll only know which one it is when you can check the word against the other answers which cross it in the grid.

But if I give you a cryptic clue:

A number heard the British River (6)

Then you’ll know the answer is Severn because it sounds like Seven (‘a number heard’).

In this example, as in most cryptic clues, there is a definition part (‘the British River’) and a subsidiary part, the cryptic part, which is the other way of arriving at an answer. The definition is always at the beginning or at the end of the clue - never in the middle.

The cryptic part often treats the word as a series of letters unrelated to its meaning. So ‘Severn’ is also S/EVER/N, and you could clue it, for example, as ‘British river always (EVER) goes between poles [S(outh) and N(orth)]’. A ‘fair’ clue should always tell you exactly how to make up the elements of the word. This guide is intended to tell you about all the different ways compilers combine and play with those elements.

Compilers will always try to put you off the scent in making the whole clue ‘flow’ as a sentence which means something in itself. Often this sentence has a meaning which is nothing to do with the answer ‐ ignore it. Try instead to break the clue up into its constituent parts and take it word by word.

Compilers are expected to try to write clues in the shortest possible way and use the minimum of ‘link’ words ‐ usually short prepositions or articles ‐ which help the clue to ‘flow’ as a sentence. An exception is the word ‘for’, which is often used to point to the actual definition of the word. Compilers also take liberties with capital letters (using them or leaving them out) and with punctuation.

As we go through the different ways of cluing, you are given a series of clues as examples; the answers to these clues, and the way they are arrived at, are given in the footnotes at the end of the Guide.

[Click on the footnote number to take you to the footnote and on the number of that to take you back.]

Finally, there are six crosswords where the clues are broken up to show you how they are constructed, but you are left to fend for yourself as far as the answers are concerned.

One final thought: As with any game, you’ll improve as you play more. Cryptic crosswords range from the relatively simple to the fiendishly difficult. At the ‘comparatively simple’ end, try the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph on Monday and Tuesday. For the very difficult, The Listener crossword now appears on Saturday in the Books section of The Times. The Azed Crossword in The Observer is also relatively hard.

In general, in the UK, Bar Grids are harder to solve than Block Grids, because they use more obscure words. This Guide starts with the simple and works towards the more sophisticated, but you’ll find you can start solving after mastering a few basic strategies ‐ see sections 3 to 9 below. You don’t have to know it all at once, and of course you can stop at any time you want.

3. Synonyms

A synonym is a word that means the same as another word, such as ‘far’ and ‘distant’. Some words can have several, completely different, meanings. For example, ‘scratch’ can mean ‘a mark’, or ‘to eliminate (from a race)’, or ‘nothing’ (as in, ‹start from scratch’). This leads to the Double Definition clue. For example:

Only fish (4) 1

That’s all there is to it, really. The trick is in spotting that a clue is of the Double Definition type. You can usually tell because there’s no other kind of indicator word; it looks a bit bare. Solving it is the same as for simple crosswords, except you have twice as much information.

Try the following:

Sweets and toys (7) 2

Drain part of the car (7) 3

Sometimes, instead of giving a definition, the compiler will give an example of a type, rather than the type itself. In that case you’d expect to see words such as ‘maybe’ or ‘saye’ to indicate this.

Nightingale, maybe, in care (5) 4

Nervous future, say (5) 5

4. Backwards

Some words when written backwards make other words. For example, ‘Drawer’ backwards is ‘reward’; ‘star’ is ‘rats’. Most of the straightforward back/forward words are too well‐known to be used by any but the most casual compiler, but backwards words, parts of words or abbreviations do turn up as one of a variety of elements in a clue, always indicated by something like ‘backwards’ or ‘reversed’. For down clues this may take the form of ‘raised’ or ‘up’. It means the same thing. For example:

A buggy’s overturned in the old city (6) 6

The indicator is ‘overturned’. You can’t tell if what must be overturned is ‘buggy’, ‘A buggy’, or even ‘A buggy’s’. But the translation of the clue is something like: ‘Find a 4, 5 or 6‐letter word for a buggy and write it backwards, with or without S at the beginning and A at the end, to get a word meaning an old city.’ The answer can be ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐, S ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐, or ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ A, or S ‐ ‐ ‐ ‐ A.

Traveller wins prizes returning to Cork, perhaps (7) 7

‘Perhaps’ indicates that ‘Cork’ is an example of a type, and that is the definition. ‘Traveller’ turns up a lot in crosswords and is a ‘rep’, as in sales rep/commercial traveller. ‘Returning’ could apply either to ‘prizes’ or to ‘Traveller’ as well. Translation: Either put a four‐letter word meaning ‘prizes’ in reverse on REP to get a word for something which includes Cork (a partial reverse) or put a four letter word meaning ‘prizes’ in reverse order and then put ‘REP’ in reverse (a complete reverse). Note also that as ‘prizes’ is a plural, the form of the answer is likely to be either REPS ‐ ‐ ‐ (unlikely) or S ‐ ‐ ‐ PER. And remember, compilers play around with punctuation in order to mislead.

5. Charades

Charade clues rely on the idea that many words are composed of two or more unrelated words. So ‘LEGEND’ is made up of ‘LEG’ + ‘END’; ‘READJUST’ = ‘READ’ + ‘JUST’; ‘PERFORATE’ = ‘PER’ + ‘FOR’ + ‘ATE’.

So, in the Charade clue, the cryptic part refers to the smaller words, and the definition part refers to the whole word.

The elements which make up the big word are either run together in the order in which they occur, or they’re linked by words like ‘on’, ‘with’ or ‘and’.

Killing for someone’s amusement (12) 8

The word ‘for’ seems to suggest that the following words make up the solution; as there are two words there, that might suggest a ‘Charade’. From that it would follow that the definition must be ‘killing’. So, you can translate the clue as follows:

Find a word meaning ‘someone’s’ and another word meaning ‘amusement’, and put them together to make a word meaning ‘killing’ (12 letters).

Try to think of several synonyms for each part, and then combine them in different ways. For example:

The attacker is a psychiatrist, maybe (9) 9

‘Is’ forms the link between the two parts of the clue. ‘Maybe’ suggests that ‘a psychiatrist’ is an example of a kind, and therefore that part is the definition. What remains is ‘The attacker’ for the cryptic part. If it’s a Charade clue, ‘THE’ must be important, because otherwise there aren’t two bits to make up a charade. So, you can translate the clue to mean:

Put a word meaning ‘attacker’ on ‘THE’ to find a type of which ‘psychiatrist’ is an example.

Often compilers use this type of clue combined with other types of clue (see below). The principle, however, is the same ‐ once you find the individual elements, put them together to find the solution.

6. Anagrams

An anagram is a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged to form other words or phrases. For example, ‘retreads’ can be arranged to form ‘arrested’ or ‘serrated’. A clue containing an anagram can often be identified quite easily. There’s nearly always an indicator or key word telling you that you must rearrange the letters. There are hundreds of words which can be used to do this, usually having an implication of upsetting, alteration, upset or building/making. The following are common anagram indicators:

Plus, anything else you can think of which indicates disorder!

Because compilers are devious they will try to pick an anagram indicator which blends so well into the surrounding words of the sentence that you don’t notice or recognise it as such.

Once you have found the word indicating an anagram, you must find the word or words which combine to make the anagram. They’re usually just before or after the indicator word. When looking for an anagram, bear in mind the number of letters you need in the solution. Any letters you already have towards the solution from the crossing words may help rule out certain words in the clue, if they don’t contain that letter, or suggest others if they do.

Once you think you've found the word or words, write the constituent letters in a random pattern on the scribble pad or in the margins. This helps you see the various patterns. For example, you might put ‘REMAINS’ down as ‘MARINES’ or ‘SEMINAR’.

Sharing out the parsley, for example (7) 10

The key word or indicator is ‘out’, which indicates the anagram. You need seven letters for the answer, and there are two seven‐letter words in the clue ‐ ‘sharing’ and ‘parsley’. If it’s an anagram of parsley, why do we need ‘the’, and why ‘for example’? We’ve met the ‘example’ type of definition already.

No, it must be an anagram of ‘SHARING’. So, the clue can be translated as:

Find an anagram of ‘sharing’ which means a type of something, of which parsley is an example.

Cowherd’s tumbled in the soup (7)1 11

The anagram indicator is ‘tumbled’. If you already have a second letter H, you can ask what letters commonly fit before it.

Discount curving pipes (8) 12

If you spot that ‘curving’ is the indicator, ‘discount’ must be the source of the letters, as you need eight.

Sometimes a compiler is more tortuous, so that you don’t get an entire word from which to form an anagram. You must do more work before you arrive at the actual letters which make up the anagram. Several of the other techniques in this Guide can be used. For instance, you might sometimes need to add a common abbreviation; two words might need to be combined, or some letters may need to be subtracted from a word first. You should however have the letters mainly available in the clue. It is not fair to ask a solver to find a completely new word, and then make an anagram of it.

Silly Margery takes E on horse (4,4) 13

The indicator is ‘silly’, and we need eight letters in all; ‘Margery’ is seven letters.

Lots of cut, excited penises (5) 14

In this clue there are two indicators. ‘Excited’ is an anagram indicator, but we only need five letters; ‘lots of’ has six, ‘penises’ has seven. And where’s the definition? The other indicator is ‘cut’, which indicates something is cut off the end of a word. It can’t refer to ‘excited’, which is an anagram indicator, so it must refer to what comes before. To translate: Knock the end off from ‘lots of’ and then make an anagram of what’s left to find a word meaning ‘penises’!

7. Hidden Words

These are probably the easiest type of cryptic clue to solve. The solution to the definition is hidden within the text of the clue. The answer is written down for you, only concealed. What you must do is look for a sequence of collective letters (ignoring spaces, capitals or punctuation). Again, there should be something in the clue to indicate the type of cryptic element it is. The most usual key is ‘some’, or a variation of such as ‘part’ or ‘portion’.

Engrossed in some crabs or bedbugs (8) 15

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Maecenas et metus.

If you think there’s something hidden, but you can’t see it, wait until you’ve got a connecting letter in the grid, which should narrow down the possibilities. In the above, if you have the second letter as ‘B’. Also used to indicate something hidden are ‘in’, ‘out of’ or even ‘of’, in the sense of ‘out of’. The following is a classic clue.

Capital of former Czechoslovakia (4) 16

Remember, never take a whole clue sentence at its face value. The answer can’t be ‘Prague’ because that’s six letters. There are two parts to the clue. So, the definition must be Capital’, and you have to find it ‘out of’ ‘former Czechoslovakia’ in four letters.

Sometimes compilers try to make it more difficult by hiding the word in reverse order (backwards). Again, this should be indicated by a key word such as ‘reversing’, for example, or in the case of a Down clue, ‘going up’.

Private returning from the Doncaster cesspit (6) 17

‘Returning from’ tells you (a) that the six‐letter solution is hidden and (b) that it goes backwards. From the way the clue is written, it follows that ‘Private’ must be the definition. To translate the clue:

Find a sequence of letters in the reversed letters TIPSSECRETSACNOD, that means ‘private’.

This is another example of the deliberate and justified throwing you off the scent. You tend to assume that ‘Private’ is a soldier. Remember, always take it one word at a time.

In these clues, you can’t rely on every word contributing to the clue. A few may be extraneous, to make the clue flow as a sentence ‐ they shouldn’t be added just to make it more difficult.

In a newspaper crossword, compilers often split the relevant bit of the clue over two lines to make the solution a bit harder to spot. And because in general these are the easiest clues to solve, you’ll rarely get more than one or two in any one crossword.

8. Homophones or ‘Sound-alikes’

A homophone is one of a group of words pronounced the same way but spelt differently. ‘Wails’, ‘whales’ and ‘Wales’, for example. Because there are so many of them in English, we have puns as a basis of our humour more than any other language.

As with the other types of clues, you should be given the nature of the clue by some reference to ‘sound’ or ‘noise’. For example, ‘we hear’, ‘they say’, ‘by the sound of it’, ‘in a speech’. Any reference to listening or speaking should alert you.

Beats in a smashing game, we hear (8) 18

The indicator of the homophone should be just before or just after it ‐ in this case, being at the end, it must refer either to ‘game’ or ‘a smashing game’. It is not likely to be simply ‘game’, because that would lead to ‘beats in a smashing’ as the definition, which doesn’t make sense.

To translate:

Find a word of eight letters which means ‘beats’, which also sounds like ‘a smashing game’.

And remember, a smashing game can be either a very good game, or a game in which something gets smashed. Compilers are always trying to put you off. For example, in what game do you try to break something?

We are told to chop up sweets (5) 19


Find a word meaning sweets which sounds like ‘chop up’

In this case, where the word you need to enter and the word that it sounds like are the same length, it’s important that you don’t get confused with which is which, and note that the compiler puts the ‘sound‐like’ indicator in an unambiguous place. Sloppy compilers often put the indicator where it could refer backwards or forwards, and you have no alternative but to wait until you have checking letters to know what is intended.

Sometimes two or more sound‐alikes are strung together to make a more complex pun. The pronunciation may need to be stretched to groan‐inducing lengths, but the principle is the same:

Porter rushed noisily, but was unmoved (4-7) 20

‘Noisily’ alerts you to the nature of the clue; it is unlikely to refer forward because it’s ‘blocked’ by ‘but’, which seems to suggest we’re on to something else. It could legitimately refer to ‘rushed’, or both ‘Porter’ and ‘rushed’. Reserve judgement and translate as follows:

Find a word for Porter and a word sounding like rushed, which when put together mean ‘unmoved’


Find a word for Porter and a word meaning ‘rushed’, which, when put together, sound like a word meaning ‘unmoved’.

Porter is a railway or hotel employee, but it is also a proper name. Can you think of a famous Porter? (Actually, he’s not quite so famous these days, but that doesn’t stop him turning up a lot in crosswords.)

You can also be pretty sure that as ‘rushed’ and ‘unmoved’ are both in the past tense and end in ‘‐ed’, it’s likely that the answer will end in ‘‐ed’ too. (Hint: the same thing goes for clues with ‘‐ing’ in both parts, or words ending in ‘s’.)

9. Words Within Words

Words or letters are often put inside other words or letters to make the solution. For example, ‘SHALLOT’ is ‘ALL’ inside ‘SHOT’. As always, an indicator should alert you to what kind of cryptic clue it is. Common indicators to suggest a word should be put inside or outside another are:


Lie in bed, disguised (6) 21

The indicator is ‘in’; so you must put ‘lie’, or a word meaning ‘lie’, inside ‘bed’, or a word meaning ‘bed’. The phrase flows so smoothly you might not notice the significance of the key word. Usually in this kind of clue you will be looking for a synonym of at least one part, and usually both.

Favourite comes round and tries to win (8) 22

‘Round’ is the indicator. It instructs you to put ‘comes’ or a word meaning ‘comes’, around a word meaning favourite (clearly it can’t be the word ‘favourite’, because it has too many letters). If ‘comes’ is used as it is, you need a word of 3 (8 minus 5) letters meaning ‘favourite’, to put inside ‘comes’, the whole meaning ‘tries to win’.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Maecenas et metus.

10. Individual Letters

Often you need to use individual letters added to other letters or words to make the solution. There are lots of different ways of doing this, but they should always be indicated. You might need to use the first letter, in which case the key word might be:

BOTTOM (down clue)

Record Head Teacher with animal (4) 23

There are two key words in the clue ‐ ‘Head’ and ‘with’. To translate the clue:

Put the first letter of ‘teacher’ and then a three‐letter word for an animal, to find a word meaning ‘record’.

Similarly, it could be the last letter of the word, indicated by:

BOTTOM (down clue)

Last warning to inn-keepers making spirits (6) 24

The key words are ‘last’, ‘to’ and ‘making’. Translation:

Put the last letter of ‘warning’ on a word meaning inn‐keepers and find a word meaning spirits.

You can see how the clue sends you off on the wrong tack about the kind of spirits you are looking for so always ignore the face value meaning of the whole clue. If you need more than one letter from a word, it should be indicated. For example ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ would mean ‘take the first/last two or three letters’.

You can do the same to the middle of the word, but in fairness it must be the exact middle. ‘The SHOPPING CENTRE’ is not OP, it is PP, or, at a pinch, OPPI. Indicators for the centre of a word might be HEART, MIDDLE or CORE.

Storm is a nuisance after mid‐September (7) 25

There are two indicators here ‐ ‘after’ and ‘mid’. Translating the clue, you get:

Put a word meaning ‘nuisance’ after the middle letter(s) of ‘September’ so that the whole thing means ‘storm’

The middle of September could be E, TEM or PTEMB. Accordingly, the word meaning ‘nuisance’ must have 6, 4 or 2 letters. Other key words in this context are:

ALTERNATE or ALTERNATIVE ‐ Take every other letter from a word or phrase.
ODD ‐ Take letters 1, 3, 5 etc.
EVEN ‐ Take letters 2, 4, 6 etc.

Odd green information (3) 26

‘Odd’ might lead you to think it is an anagram, but there’s no three‐letter word in the clue, so it must refer to alternate letters. Occasionally, the clue will give you the exact position in the word of the letter required. This sounds obvious, but it can melt into the context. Days of the months and monarchs are favourite tricks of compilers.

Taking tea before November 5th?
That should be lucky (5) 27

You might be led to think of bonfires and fireworks, but all we are looking for is the letter M, the 5th letter in ‘November’. So, put M on a word meaning ‘tea’, to make something which could be lucky. Over time you will develop your own standards about what you think is fair or unfair in a clue, and usually people allow a little leeway for a particularly witty or concise clue. However, I first ran across the last clue as:

Tea on November 5th is lucky (5)

This is not fair because it is not accurate. The compiler has been careless, and if she or he is careless you lose respect for them. Why should you take the pains if they don’t? The way the clue has been written suggests that you put a word meaning ‘tea’ on the letter M, not the other way around. Also, neither ‘lucky’ (adjective) or ‘is lucky’ (verb) means ‘charm’, as a noun or verb.

It is a rule that the part of speech of a word in the clue should be able to correspond to the part of speech in the answer. You should always be able to construct a sentence in which the clue’s definition can substitute for the answer. Compilers are not as careful as they might be in this respect. We try to insist on this from compilers in the Hathway Crossword Club.

Sometimes you need to use the opening letters of a series of words. For example:

Youngster initially babbles about being young (4) 28

‘Initially’ is a key word, but what does it refer to? Count the number of words after it, and the number of letters in the solution.

11. Removals

Sometimes you will be instructed to remove a letter or letters from a clue. Once you’ve done so, you will be left with the answer, or something which combines with another element to form the answer.

The key words for this imply something MISSING, LOST or REMOVED.

Often, it’s the first letter: TOPLESS; HEADLESS; NON‐STARTER; BEHEADED.


Or the middle letter(s): HEARTLESS; GUTTED.

Tourist finds topless stripper (7) 29

‘Topless’ is the indicator, and the way the clue is written means that the definition must be ‘Tourist’. Translation:

Remove the first letter from ‘stripper’, or a word meaning ‘stripper’, to find a word meaning tourist

More usually, you will have to find both words:

Making a mistake beheading fish (6) 30

The indicator is ‘beheading’. The grammar shows that it must be the fish that is beheaded.

Note on Crossword Grammar: If the clue read, ‘Making a mistake, beheaded fish’ it could mean either ‘making a mistake’ or ‘fish’ was beheaded, so details are important.

Helpful Hint: You should be able to work out that it is likely to be a seven‐letter fish, and that it is most likely to end in ‘‐ING’, since the definition is making a mistake’.

There can be a lot of enjoyment in solving with a friend or partner. Or, as we do in the Hathway Crossword Club, in a group, with a lot of food, alcohol, banter and wandering off the point.

12. Accents

Look out for curious spellings of words in a clue. Some compilers take liberties with spelling, in order to make it sound as if the clue was spoken by someone with an accent or a speech characteristic. There are a few odd‐talking characters in Crossword‐land. Cockneys drop their aitches and change their endings to endin’s. The stutterer can’t help s‐stammering. and the lisper is no more thuperior. If you come across any of these, or something similar, apply their way of talking to the words to find the solution.

‘Ector’s privet is the boundary (4) 31

You know that Hector drops his aitches, so the ‘privet’ begins with an H; just ignore it, like Hector does. This is really a variation on the sound‐alike clue. You must apply the way of speaking to the word before it sounds like the answer.

Get more involved with dithgutht (7) 32

Obviously, you are drawn to the nonsense word. Say it out loud and what does it tell you? The construction of the clue shows that the definition must be ‘Get more involved’ or ‘more involved’. Translation: Find a word meaning ‘disgust’, and substitute ‘th’ for ‘s’, and you will find a word for ‘get more involved’ or ‘more involved’.

Swell? Not dat nurse (7) 33

This is an old clue, and would be unlikely to be used now, because of the racist overtones (so‐called ‘black’ accent turning ‘that’ into ‘dat’ ‐ cf. ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine’ from Showboat). If something is ‘not that’ it might be ‘this’ (‘dis’). Translation: Put a (4‐letter) word meaning nurse onto DIS‐ to get a word meaning ‘swell’.

13. Foreign Words

It is not unusual for cryptic crosswords to make use of foreign words but dont panic. They are usually short words, and you will know them, or if you don’t, you will soon pick them up. We are only talking about ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘if’, ‘like’ etc. They are given in English in the clue. The name of the language (usually French) comes immediately before or after what is to be translated. You might come across:

‘a’ French ‐ un/une
‘a’ in Spanish ‐ un/una
‘an’ in Italian ‐ un/uno/una
‘and’ in French ‐ et
‘and’ in Spanish ‐ y
French for ‘dance’ ‐ bal
‘dear’ in French ‐ cher
‘from/of’ in French ‐ de
‘of’ in French ‐ du/des
French for ‘in’ ‐ en/dans
Spanish for ‘in’ ‐ en
‘is’ in French ‐ est
‘says’ in French ‐ dit
French for ‘sea’ ‐ mer
‘the’ in German ‐ der
‘the’ in Italian ‐ il
‘to the’ in French ‐ au
‘very’ in French ‐ tres
‘on’ in French ‐ sur
‘the’ in French ‐ le/la/les

Sermons from the French children (7) 34

The use of the word ‘from’ means there are two possible ways to translate the clue, both involving ‘les’ in French ‐ since ‘sermons’ and ‘children’ are both plural, it is likely that the article will be plural too, according to French fashion.

So, the translation is either ‘Put a (four‐letter) word meaning ‘sermons’ on LES‐ to get a word meaning ‘children’, or add a four‐letter word meaning ‘children’ to LES‐; the whole thing meaning ‘sermons’. The second seems more likely, because a four‐letter word meaning ‘sermons’ eludes me.

14. Quotations

The old-fashioned crosswords like The Times and The Daily Telegraph sometimes simply ask you to fill in a missing word in a quotation, with a dash in the quotation to indicate the word, and the name of the author (or sometimes the work) in brackets at the end. Being pedantic little sods at the Hathway Club, we take the view that this has no place in a cryptic crossword without a proper cryptic element. There is also the question of what kinds of quotations are appropriate.

Since most people who compile that kind of crossword are upper‐middle-class, public-school‐classics‐educated, the quotes are similarly biased. In the Hathway club we tend to use quotes as the hook for much longer anagrams or themes.

A recent example was, ‘Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’ In the Hathway club we can use any quote which we think people will recognise, but in a newspaper the bottom line is that a quote is checkable in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, though even that is irritating if you are doing a crossword on the train or in your lunch hour.

15. Allusions/References

This follows on from quotations; the answer isn’t a quotation exactly but depends on knowing or recognising a reference to something else. In the older crosswords this is usually literary:

Tess’s husband ‐ he’s heavenly (5) 35

Tess might lead you to Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles. In the novel she married the worthy, but dull Angel Clare.

It is often not necessary to know much about literature to get the answer. In this example you’d eventually get there by having A-G-L from the crossing letters. Nevertheless, if you couldn’t explain the whole answer, you’d probably feel cheated. In crosswords, there are a lot of references to cricket (‘deliveries’ = OVER), and an actor is almost invariably TREE, although Herbert Beerbohm Tree died in 1917. The Guardian, Private Eye and Hathway crosswords may refer to politicians, actors, even Spice Girls.

Whether you think this is fair will probably depend on whether you get the references. I thought this one was dreadfully unfair because I don’t have a television and I don’t know much about pop music:

Kojak’s birds formed a 70s pop group (3,1,4) 36

Proper names can be disguised by putting them at the start of the sentence:

Grant given, having investigated a cry (4) 37

Grant, like Porter earlier, is a name and there’s another indication in there as well. How fair you think this is depends on whether the compiler’s range of reference is like yours, or if it’s something which in any case is easy to look up. In the case of gay crosswords, I assume a shared cultural reference to gay authors and composers etc, gay history, camp icons, gay venues (which can be checked for example in ‘Gay Times’), current events relevant to lesbians and gay men. With time you’ll find those compilers you feel happy about.

There’s also the question of how difficult the words should be in the answers. I become irritated if a crossword in a daily paper uses a word which nobody could normally be expected to know, because I want to do the puzzle on the tube and then forget it. So difficult words are self‐defeating. On the other hand, if you are expected to spend a bit of time on a puzzle, in a weekly or monthly publication, and can take it home, I don’t see why you shouldn’t use things which are a bit obscure. One of the fun things about crosswords is that they introduce you to new words.

My favourite word is ‘taghairm’ ‐ no, I won’t tell you what it means; look it up in Chambers. And I challenge you to find a way to introduce it into an ordinary conversation!

As a compiler, I don’t want to make what I call the mechanical bits of solving into a chore, so I try to stick to two rules as far as difficult words are concerned: 1) Don’t have more than two of them in an ordinary crossword; 2) Make the cryptic part of the clue fairly easy so that you can arrive at the answer and then look it up in the dictionary to confirm it. In some of the specialist puzzles, however, it is impossible to set the crossword without using some very obscure words. See Crossword Language.

16. Pure Cryptic Crosswords

These are the exceptions to the rules. There is no split into definition and cryptic parts. Instead, the whole clue defines the solution, but in a very cryptic or indirect way. You’ll be pleased to know that these are not used very often, but they are very satisfying when the penny finally drops. It is often best to leave these until you have got some letters towards the solution. The best way of explaining is to give you some examples.

A French capitalist? (8) 38

With a very short clue and no indication of a cryptic part or definition, and no key to anagrams or sound‐alikes, the answer lies in the pun contained in ‘capitalist’.

Pure cryptic need a certain amount of lateral thinking, and as many interpretations as you can come up with. Often, they come down to a crucial pun.

General studies (8,7) 39

The way the clue is phrased, you start thinking about degrees in Humanities and vague courses. But what if the clue were to mean the study of generals?.

He gets the sack every morning! (7) 40

Here the key word is ‘sack’. It can’t be used in the sense of ‘dismissal’, so what worker is given a ‘sack’ or bag every morning? Occasionally things get even more cryptic, and don’t even involve whole or real words. For example:

HEPOMART (5,8)(7) 41

Obviously, this isn’t a proper word. The best lead to give you is to wait until you have got a letter or two towards it. Suppose you arrive at ‐ ‐ T ‐ ‐ ‐ O ‐ for the second word; you might at this stage realise that T and O are both in ‘hepomart’, and that ‘hepomart’ has eight letters. What follows from that?

This kind of clue is also known as a ‘reversed’ clue because the key or indicator is in the solution, not in the clue. You can usually spot these by their shortness as clues, especially compared with the length of the answer since there doesn’t seem to be enough information.

General B (3,5) 42

This is a Down clue. Let’s suppose you’ve got the letters ‐ O ‐ B ‐ ‐ ‐ S towards the answer. Since B, which is in the clue, starts the second word, does this suggest anything? What is a slang phrase for a general or other army bigwig?

Here is another example:

XX (6,5) 43

There is nothing to help you here at all. It is totally unlike anything you’ve seen so far. What exactly have you been given in the clue? Two unknown quantities? Two kisses? Remember, we’re looking for a hyphenated common phrase.

Pure cryptic crosswords can be very elegant and satisfying to solve, but remember that the compiler is always trying to mislead you, while being strictly accurate.

Crop circles (8) 44

Obviously not the mysterious stapes seen on a farmers’ land, because there wouldn’t be anything cryptic about that. Analyse each word and try to be as perverse as the compiler. What meanings does the word ‘crop’ have? A harvest, the stock of a whip, to chop or cut, as in a photo or hair. And what kind of circles result from this kind of crop?

17. Whole Clue Definitions

Sometimes a sentence can give you both the definition and the cryptic elements which make up the answer at the same time.

‘Planets’ air composed by him? (10) 45

It sets you off thinking about Holst’s ‘Planets Suite’, which it’s meant to do. But the answer is another composer. The word ‘composed’ serves to indicate this and an anagram. Where are there ten letters to make up an anagram? Note there isn’t a separate definition and cryptic part, but that they overlap.

18. Rearrangement of Words

Sometimes a two‐word (or more) answer suggest a ready phrase or sentence if the words are changed around. For example, if the answer is ‘BODY SHOP’, when you turn the words around, you have ‘SHOP BODY’.

So, you might clue this as:

Reveal the corpse by swapping repairers (4,4)

There is always an indicator about swapping, turning over, or reversal ‐ though reversal might set you thinking about a different kind of clue. Here is another one:

Correct river to cross and be blunt (10)) 46

You are looking for a word meaning ‘correct’ and then a river, and you ‘cross’ them to find a word meaning ‘blunt’. Or:

Kill with bludgeon disordered down-and-out (8) 47

Here you are looking for a phrase meaning ‘kill with bludgeon’ and then you reverse the words to get a word meaning ‘down-and-out’.

Dr William Spooner was a Fellow of New College, Oxford who acquired a rather unfair reputation for mixing up the first letters of his words. He is falsely alleged, to have said whilst proposing a toast to the ‘Dear Queen’, ‘To the Queer Dean’. Some clues play with this, usually indicated by using the word ‘Spooner’ or ‘Doctor’. One of the members of the Hathway Club, specialises in Spoonerisms, and once compiled a whole crossword consisting of nothing else.

Hovel’s electric sound for Spooner
is not wanted in the family (5,5) 48

19. Spoonerisms

So, find a word for a hovel, and a word for an electric sound, and then change the headings round. The next example is more sophisticated and it also contains a literary reference.

Shakespearean attention‐seeking gambit leads Spooner
to call for ban on tragedy (4,2,4,4) 49

The reference, which is a quote, is the answer in four words and two of the words need to be altered Spooner‐style, to find the subsidiary phrase which calls for a ban on tragedy.

20. Abbreviations

There are lots of standard abbreviations used in cryptic crosswords to give you additional letters. Some of them are reasonably obvious. ST for Saint (good man) or Street (way). Others are less so obvious. There is really no alternative to getting familiar with them. Chambers and other dictionaries have lists of abbreviations and in Chambers, the standard reference for crossword setters and solvers, they are in alphabetical order in the text with the initial letter giving you the meaing of many.

See these common abbreviations.

Street, main road and river that’s used in flight (5) 50

Use the list of abbreviations to decipher. ‘Used in’ will point you to where the definition lies.

Translation: Putting together the abbreviations for ‘Street’, ‘main road’ and ‘river’ give something used in ‘flight’. What kinds of ‘flight’ are there? The suggestion from the sense of the sentence is ‘running away’, but we know compilers are devious!

More commonly, an abbreviation will be combined with another word in the clue which is reached in a different way, to get to the answer.

21. Crossword Language

Obscure words are often used in crosswords because they are attractive to compilers, either because they help provide common groups of letters, or because they have unique combinations which fit with letters which cross. If you see the crossing letters I ‐ E ‐ I, the answer must be ‘Iceni’ (Boudicca’s British tribe) because it’s almost the only word that fits. Likewise, ‘okapi’ and ‘eland’.

LING = heather or fish
ELY = see, cathedral city

RENEGADE and ADHERE occur a lot as Across words at the bottom of grids, because they provide useful letters for the ends of Down words. See these common words that are frequently used.

Some words take on an entirely different meaning from their everyday use. Words ending in ‐ER need to be treated with caution. ‘Flower’, as well as being a plant, means ‘that which flows’, i.e. a river. Conversely, a ‘bloomer’ can be ‘that which blooms’ (i.e. a flower); a ‘spanner’ is that which spans (i.e. a bridge).

Can you find alternative meanings to ‘jumper’ and ‘butter’?

One final convention: The compiler is ‘I’ or ‘me’, and the solver is ‘you’. In the case of the compiler, ‘I’ or ‘me’ should accurately reflect whether the compiler is the subject of the sentence, or the object/dative/ablative.

For example: ‘Have an orgasm in company with compiler’ is ‘COME’, which is CO (abbreviation for company) + ME (compiler). ‘Me’ is grammatically correct in this sentence. On the other hand, ‘Compiler gets up with flowers’ is ‘IRISES’, which is ‘I’ + ‘rises’.

22. Crossword Punctuation

We have already said that compilers play with punctuation to mislead solvers, and it should be largely ignored. However, punctuation at the end of the clue should be part of the clue and should help you towards the type of clue it is. For example, some clues will have a question mark at the end of them. This can mean one of several things:

Exclamation marks are also used to draw attention to warped logic or particularly groan‐inducing puns.

Cast off cigarettes! (7) 54

23. Links Between Clues

Sometimes (and often in Hathway Club crosswords) the compiler links clues together. There are several ways of doing this.

24. Hints and Tricks

Sometimes you are left with a few clues where you don’t seem to be able to get any further. Sometimes it’s a quarter of the grid where you’ve got very few checking letters, and if only you could crack one, the rest might follow.

Sometimes it is obvious what the ending should be; if the definition is in the past tense, the answers are likely to end in ‐ED; likewise, if it’s plural it will most likely end in ‐S. If the definition ends in ‐ING, so may the answer. This may help to get a letter towards an interlocking word.

Look too for other common patterns, prefixes and suffixes. After you have been solving for a while, you start to get a sense of the shape of words.

Common prefixes are: DIS‐, PER‐, PRO‐, CON‐, OVER‐, UN‐.

Common suffixes are: ‐EST, ‐MENT, ‐NESS, ‐SHIP, ‐ATION.

If you have some letters towards a word, try to think of a word or words ‐ any words ‐ which would fit those letters. This will give you an idea of the possible shape of the answer.

If it is a phrase with a little word in it, try to think what that might be (AND, IF, AS, THE, FOR, BY etc).

You can also try going through possible first letters for the solution, working through the alphabet. If you have the second letter, that limits the number of possible first letters. If it’s an H, for example, it is most likely S, T, C, W (though it might be G, P or a vowel). If the second letter's a D, the first must be a vowel.

25. What Makes a Good Crossword?

This is very subjective, but I’d suggest that a good crossword is one where the compiler has obviously taken a great deal of trouble over the clues and the grid. The grid is not often appreciated, although one or two compilers are particularly adept at them; the Guardian’s ‘Araucaria’ is outstanding.

A good grid will be ‘crisp’. By this I mean that it will mainly use consonants as connecting letters (60 to 70%), and out of those, there will be a fair sprinkling of the more unusual ones (the higher scorers in Scrabble). This will help you solve it, over and above what is in the actual clue, because it restricts the number of possible answers.

All lights in a crossword should ideally have a minimum of 50% of their letters connecting with other words. So, X ‐ X ‐ X ‐ X ‐ (C ‐ D ‐ I ‐ C ‐) is fine, and so is X ‐ X ‐ X ‐ X (S ‐ R ‐ T ‐ H); however, ‐ X ‐ X ‐ (‐ E ‐ R ‐) is to be avoided because it is too easy for the compiler.

There will also be good connections between the quarters of the crossword; there should be a minimum of four clues which ‘jut’ into the other half of the grid, across and down. Themed crosswords, where anything up to half the clues all relate to the same idea or group, are especially difficult, and so you don’t ask so much by way of ‘crispness’.

26. Specialist Puzzles

There are a number of specialist magazines for experienced solvers, which play around with the ‘rules’ of crosswords. The Guardian, especially on Saturdays and special holidays, uses these a lot. The peerless compiler of these is Araucaria, a semi‐retired vicar now well over 80 but still going strong. He has a slightly off‐the‐wall thought process, but once you are on his wavelength he is strictly fair, and his grids are a joy.

A good rule for all crosswords, but especially for Specialist Puzzles, is that a Crossword is a siege, so, what is the weakest point of entry?

Specialist puzzles include:

Perimetrical: The grid is of a style like Crossword 6 in the samples. A phrase runs around the ‘edge’ of the crossword, usually from the top left‐hand corner. You get a clue to the phrase and a word indication (4,5). The rest of the clues are listed in alphabetical order of their solution. As in all specialist puzzles, follow Corporal Jones, and don’t panic! Read the rules carefully and use all the information you have been given. If you think the answer is ‘panic’, is it sitting in the order of clues between ‘Oz’ and ‘Pat’? Does a five‐letter place in the grid look likely or difficult? Does it connect with any other answer you have got?

Alphabetical: Each of the answers begin with a different letter of the alphabet, except where there is a point in the grid where an across and a down clue both start with the same letter. Again, the clues are given in alphabetical order of solution, and you need to put them where they fit. It is a good rule of thumb to attack the clues with the rarer letters starting them. They are probably more obscure, but there are less of them from which to choose. The Lord Araucaria, who specialises in these, also writes the clues in rhyming couplets, just for the hell of it.

Theme: In this kind of grid, there will be a key answer, which gives you a subject, and this leads on to a number of other clues. You will recognise this kind of puzzle because clues will keep referring you back to other clues. For example, ‘Look out for 14?’ (See Crossword 6, although it is not a themed puzzle.) If there were a lot of ‘14’s turning up in clues, you’d have a theme. Sometimes, just to make you sick, the theme isn’t even clued, just left blank; then you must wait until you have got enough of the other bits of the puzzle.

A variation is to have a theme indicated by a Preamble to a crossword. For example, one that I did had the preamble, ‘Answers A,B,C,D beat answers E,F,G; answers E,F,G beat answers H,I,J,K; answers H,I,J,K beat answers A,B,C,D’. Can you guess what theme goes with circular superiority? In each of these cases the answer, as is often the case with theme puzzles, were partially clued. This means that you are given the cryptic bit of the answer, but you won’t have a definition, because that is supplied by the theme. For example, I might write a crossword which had a title (just as useful as a preamble) ‘Castles’. In it there might be clues such as:

Peek out (4) 55

27. Conclusion

Crosswords can be highly addictive. I think the reason is that it is a battle of wits with an unseen adversary, whose thought patterns can be learned and understood. It springs from the same stock which also produces Holmes and Moriarty and a legion of other detective stories, sci‐fi movies (remember Sigourney Weaver working out what the Alien really was) and even horror.

It feeds on our pleasure in making patterns, bringing order to a disordered world. It has absolutely nothing to do with real life and is all the better for that. It is the ultimate in intellectual escapism.

It is also time‐limited. Except for truly fiendish puzzles like The Listener crossword which may last you through the week, crosswords will entertain you for an hour, two at most. This sense of achieving a goal within the near future is a great spur to completion. I have a rule as a solver, which is that if I can’t get the answer to a single clue on a first readthrough, I will walk away. Life is too short.

It is meant to be fun and there is no fun to be had from a compiler who is more concerned with demonstrating his own cleverness than creating a good game. If a crossword cannot be solved with enjoyment, even laughter, and aesthetic appreciation of the crossword object, then the compiler has failed.

Esmée (2018)

Here are six Crosswords to start on and the Solutions to check how well you’ve done.


1. Sole (means ‘only’ as in ‘sole survivor’, and is a flatfish).

2. ‘Trifles’ are desserts (sweets); ‘trifles’ also means ‘toys’, as in ‘trifles with affections’.

3. ‘Exhaust’ is a part of a car; it also means to tire out, to drain.

4. ‘Nightingale refers to Florence Nightingale, who is best known as a ‘Nurse’ (care).

5. ‘Future, like past or present, is a grammatical ‘tense’ (nervous).

6. ‘SPARTA (A Trap’s in reverse).

7. ‘STOPPER (‘Rep. pots’ in reverse).

8. MANSLAUGHTER (Killing) = MANS (Someone’s) + LAUGHTER (amusement).

9. THERAPIST = THE (in the clue) + RAPIST (Attacker).

10. GARNISH ‐ anagram of ‘sharing’

11. CHOWDER, anagram of ‘cowherd’

12. CONDUITS, anagram of ‘discount’

13. GREY MARE, anagram of ‘Margery’ plus E

14. TOOLS, anagram of ‘lots o(f)’ plus E

15. crABS OR BEDbugs

16. czechoslovakia

17. doncas(TER CES)spit ‐ read it backwards

18. CONQUERS sounds like ‘conkers’

19. MINTS sounds like ‘mince’

20. COLD-HEARTED sounds like ‘Cole’ + ‘darted’

21. BE(LIE)D, as in ‘His fierce look belied his soft heart’


23. T(eacher) + APE

24. warning(G) + HOSTS

25. sep(TEM)ber + PEST

26. GrEeN

27. CHAR + Nove(M)ber

28. B(abbles) A(bout) B(eing) Y(oung)

29. s(TRIPPER)

30. (h)ERRING

31. (H)EDGE

32. ‘Sicken’ goes with a lisp to ‘thicken’, as in ‘the plot thickens’, meaning get more involved

33. ‘DIS + TEND

34. LES + SONS


36. THE O’JAYS (A 70s group & Kojak’s first name was Theo

37. CARY (anag. A CRY)

38. PARISIAN (pun on ‘capitalist’)

39. MILITARY HISTORY (pun on ‘General’)

40. POSTMAN (pun on ‘get the sack’)

41. MIXED METAPHOR (anag. ‘hepomart’)

42. TOP BRASS (General is the definition, and B is the top of the word 'Brass')

43. DOUBLE-CROSS (X = cross, and there is two of them)

44. TONSURES (pun)

45. PALESTRINA (anag. Planets Air)

46. RIGHT + FORTH, then swapped to become FORTHRIGHT

47. BEAT + DEAD then swapped to become DEADBEATT

48. BLACK SHEEP when Spoonerised becomes SHACK BLEEP

49. LEND ME YOUR EARS becomes in hands of Dr. Spooner END ME YOUR LEARS

50. ST + AI + R (abbreviations); ref. a flight of stairs

51. Spades (Used in gardening, and suit of cards)

52. S + TATE

53. WISDOM (Norman Wisdom, wisdom tooth)

54. PLAYERS (cigarettes, and making up the cast of a show)

55. KEEP is an anagram of PEEK and is also part of a castle ‐ the definition is not given in the clue

Back to Top