Cryptic Crosswords

How Not to Write Cryptic Crosswords

One of the reasons that people don’t get into cryptic crosswords as a fun game is because so many of them are badly written: clumsy, humourless, unfair. Many papers advertise what they call a cryptic crossword which is nothing of the kind.

To me the most frustrating is inThe New European. If you haven’t come across this, it is the weekly paper which is campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. A high‐quality broadsheet with some big hitter columnists and commentators. Andrew Adonis, Bonnie Greer, Michael White who was brought out of retirement from the Guardian, Mitch Benn for the humour, Martin Rowson for some savage cartooning, etc. And all for a cause I passionately believe in.

But their crossword has me in despair. It is a blot on an immaculate paper, and if they cannot do better than this, they really should not bother. Someone on the paper who knows nothing about crosswords has obviously thought, “Oh, quality broadsheets have crosswords, so we should have one too.” They have gone to the Press Association (I think) who have dashed off a sloppy little puzzle to go with their sudoku.

This casual attitude is evidenced by the way they put the answers on the same page as the grid; okay, so they may not have a prize to give, but they could at least make you turn a page if you want to cheat an answer.

Not every clue is a stinker; some pass muster, in a pedestrian sort of way. But there are enough howlers in each crossword to make it not worth the bother. Unless, that is, you would like to use them as a way of learning more about how crosswords work, how clues work, by seeing why these do not work.

21 to 26 March 2019, p.46
A lazy crossword. ‘Formation’ is a perfectly good way to indicate an anagram, but to use it three times in the same puzzle? No. There are literally thousands of anagram indicators to choose from, and there is always a way of doing it which makes sense in a sentence for the surface reading of the clue. Similar over‐use of the indicator ‘compound’.

A cryptic crossword clue has two parts. The first is the straightforward definition of a word; the second, ‘cryptic’ part is an indirect ‘puzzling’ way to arrive at the same word. See ourCrossword Guide for a list of all the different ways the cryptic element can work. The cryptic element supports the definition, but it must support the whole word, not just a bit of it.

21 to 26 March 2019, p.46

24 across: Support a form of drug to start with (6). The definition is ‘support’ ‐ a support is a PILLAR. ‘A form of drug’ is a PILL. But where is the cryptic element for AR? These letters are unsupported.

27 across: Demented posse sets off (9). Demented is POSSESSED. First problem is that the letters POSSE appear the same in the clue as the answer, so it is not a cryptic element, you just transfer the letters. Even allowing that POSSE is supported, where are the cryptic pointers to SSED? That's almost half the word un‐clued.

13 down: Sound as a bell, at last coming into view (9). ‘Coming into view’ is APPEARING. ‘Sound as a bell’, as a verb, is RING, and it is ‘at last’. So, the answer ends in RING. But what of APPEA? Over half the word is ignored cryptically.

Some other dodgy clueing:
8 across: No weed encouraged in this garden (4). This is an answer which is hidden - weED Encouraged, EDEN.

Containment clues need an indicator too. Something which shows that the answer is hiding in the cryptic phrase. The surface reading of the clue is attractive but it is grammatically wrong. If using ‘in’ to signal containment of Eden, it should be pointing into the phrase ‘No Weed Encouraged’. In fact, the reverse is true: ‘No weed encouraged outside this garden’. We can argue the theology of whether Eden contained weeds!

4 to 10 April 2019

1 across: Man, I make better collection of handy tools (8,3). The definition is ‘handy tools’, answer MANICURE SET, a nice little pun on ‘handy’. But ‘MAN I’ is simply copied over, not cryptic, and it doesn’t make for a good surface reading. Who is this hippy calling us ‘Man’?

10 across: Engine driver (5). Not really a cryptic clue at all.

12 across: Censors scissors (7). A double definition, but for the clue to read in a way that makes sense, ‘censor’ has to be a noun, not a verb. It needs apostrophe ‐ censor’s or censors’.

13 across: Press point, then first it requires prompt attention (6). A charade clue, where elements are laid side by side. ‘Requiring prompt attention’ is URGENT. ‘Press’ = URGE; ‘point’ [of the compass] = N; ‘then first’ = T. But ‘it requires prompt attention’ suggests a noun, ‘urgent’ is an adjective. Every detail of a crossword must be worked through if it is to be satisfying.

15 across: Maiden, the first address (6). The answer is SPEECH, and a maiden speech is the first an MP makes, but again the grammar of the clue is all wrong. ‘Address’ is the definition, but ‘Maiden the first’ is nonsense. Better something like Address.

22 across: Ay, every inch a King (5). A double definition, answer RULER. The King Lear quote is apt, except that the ‘ay’ is redundant. It is also slightly outside the box, and usually that’s indicated by a question mark.

23 across: Parade around with petticoat frills (7). Again, grammar is wrong. It is a double definition: FLOUNCE. But ‘flounce’ is singular, and ‘frills’ is plural. Careless.

2 down: Cancel a yearly expression (5). A complete mess. The compiler is trying to take ‘A’ out of ANNUAL to make ANNUL (Cancel), but if a cryptic clue splits into two parts, ‘A Yearly Expression’ does not give the right cryptic instruction; if s/he is trying to use cancel in both parts of the clue, cancel does not mean ‘withdraw A from. How about ‘Cancel and withdraw article from Yearbook’?

5 down: Them meticulous little creatures found here (5). The answer is EMMET, hidden, an archaic word for ant or Cornish slang for tourist. Only problem here is that ‘creatures’ is plural, and the answer is singular. There are so many ways of hiding EMMET (‘some system meters worker’) in a sentence which makes sense and avoids being ungrammatical.

6 down: Uproot Mexican tree? I cannot, at the utmost (7) After scratching my head for a long time, I got to the fact that EXTREME (utmost) is an anagram of TREE + MEX, so what you have to do is take I CAN out of MEXICAN (‘I can not’) before doing the anagram. Uproot is not a proper anagram indicator, and the clue has too many stages to it. Complex without being satisfying.

7 down: Landed job - possibly a guilt curer (11). AGRICULTURE, from an anagram. Nice ambiguous use of ‘landed’ in the definition, and you can see the temptation, but Agriculture is not a job. Farmer is, ploughman is, but not Agriculture. That is like saying School is a job rather than teacher or coach.

17 down: The final box (6). COFFIN, a straightforward definition, not cryptic.

21 down: Lively dance, all beat and go (5) TANGO. ‘All’ is redundant; GO is a straight transposition, not a cryptic element.

11 to 17 April 2019
Crossword 1

Crossword 1

8 across: Direction to a short highway (4). The definition is ‘direction’ EAST which leave ‘a short highway’ for the cryptic. Gives us A + ST where’s the E? Trying to use direction twice for both parts.

16 across: There’s nothing in this clue (5). This is straightforward, not cryptic.

26 across: Sits up, cap in hand (4). In double definition ‘BEGS’ presumably refers to dogs ‘begging’, but ‘cap in hand’ does not mean ‘begs’ for the other definition.

1 down: Plant with a role for the medicine man (9). HERB + A + LIST. ‘List’ here presumably means ‘roll’.

2 down: So physics can affect the mind if deranged (9) ‘Deranged’ is the anagram indicator, but it is in the wrong place. It can’t be displaced to the end of the sentence away from the words it is qualifying. As written, it looks as if we are trying for an anagram of ‘the mind if’, also 9 letters. For PSYCHOSIS, we’re not.

5 down: Equine problem (5). A charade of two definitions, neither of which definitions are accurate. ‘Rider’ does not mean ‘equine’ (or even ‘equine problem’), and a ‘rider’ in the other sense is a condition or proviso, not a problem.

6 down: This player could make your hair stand on end (6). A ‘CURLER’ in the sense of a tool to curl hair doesn’t make it stand on end but quite the reverse, it prevents it from standing on end.

9 down: Reset, short form (5). Why the comma? But if you’re looking for ‘form’ to qualify the letters of ‘reset’ to get TERSE (def. ‘short’) then ‘form’ is in the wrong place, split from the word it qualifies.

11 down: Upset, scarey, careless ‐ and staggering (5). ‘Scary’ is of course mis‐spelt, but I have no idea what this clue is doing. ‘Staggering’ seems to be the definition, but how you get a cryptic element from the rest is beyond me.

17 down: You have a point to note, being of age (5). YOUNG is specifically not ‘of age’, but underage.

19 down: Alter fifty and they’ll grow this way (6). TALLER is an anagram of ‘alter’ + L (Latin 50), but you cannot use alter as both an indicator of an anagram and part of the anagram itself.

24 down: It’s a long time for the wise to put head to tail (4). S goes from the top of SAGE to the bottom to get AGES. However, ‘the wise’ seems to indicate a plural. Better to have ‘wise’ or ‘wise man’. Better to turn it round for the flow. It’s wise putting head to tail for a long time.

Crossword 2

Crossword 2

1 across: Apparently methods A to J are unsuitable on the building site (5). A very nice idea for a clue for PLAN K, but ‘on the building site’ is not a proper definition for PLANK.

8 across: Actuality is in the kingdom (7)

9 across: ...and I am intact (and keeping quiet about it) (5). The habit of joining clues together with a ‹...’ is used either when the answers are related to each other, when the two clues can join to make a coherent sentence, or (dubiously) when a word is used simultaneously at the end of the first clue and at the beginning of the second. None of these apply here, so it is redundant.

The use of ‘intact’ is interesting, because the ‘I’ is in ‘TACT’ [making TACIT] so ‘intact’ works by splitting the word in two. This is commonly used in ‘indeed’, where the answer is DE***ED. Some people regard this as unfair, and we have arguments about it in the Crossword Club. I think an elegant and witty clue justifies it.

14 across: Several warplanes, or part of one (4). Answer WING. Acceptable double definition clue, except I would query ‘several’. A Wing in the RAF consists, according to Chambers, the dictionary of reference for Crosswords, of ‘several squadrons’, and a Squadron consists of ‘10 to 18 planes’. Considerably more than ‘several’.

16 across: Returned with the news, dear (8). ANSWERED is an anagram of ‘news, dear’ but there is no anagram indicator.

17 across: Insect can make 19 (4). Relates to 19 down: Part of tree from 17 (4). FLEA is an anagram of LEAF, and vice versa. But ‘make’ as an indicator is feeble and misses the opportunity for something insect‐like to make the clue ‘read’ well. ‘Insect digests 19’? While ‘from’ in 19 is not an anagram indicator at all. ‘Sprouting from’?

4 down: Bond of union for the builder ...(6)

5 down: ...may be needed for half this (it’s all rather sad) (8). A legitimate use of the linking device, in that there is a link: CEMENT may be needed to make a PATH. But where is the cryptic support for ‘ETIC’? 5 down also has lots of redundant words. Ideally no word should be unnecessary in a clue.

7 down: Tax van greatly ‐ far too much, in a way! (13). EXTRAVAGANTLY is an anagram of ‘tax van greatly’, but the anagram indicator is separated from what it qualifies by the definition. And why the exclamation mark? This usually draws attention to a particularly awful or appropriate pun, as a ? is a kind of apology for stretching the crossword rules slightly.

15 down: When heads are counted ‐ and everyone else too. Not cryptic, as double definitions of ‘head’ do not work in this context.

What a pedant, you may say! But the internet is thick with raging arguments among crossword enthusiasts over exactly what the rules are, and even the minutest infringements of them. These clues I’ve picked apart would give most serious puzzlers apoplexy. And remember, it is the rules and the constraints they make which confer intellectual satisfaction to both setters and solvers.

Haven’t we all got better things to do? Shouldn’t we all get a life? Probably, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do now!

Peter Scott‐Presland


Back to top