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Crossword hints

It can be hard to know where to start when faced with a crossword for the first time. This page attempts to make things a bit easier by explaining the different types of clues that are used in cryptic puzzles.


Construction | Anagram | Changing letters | Initialism | Hidden word 
Double meaning | Homophone | Cryptic definition

Construction

One of the most common types of clue, the answer is 'constructed' by joining together different parts of the clue to arrive at an answer. These can vary from the very simple;

          Support a musical work (4)AID (support) + A = aida 

to the more complex:

          A soldier volunteers to repel senior troublemakers (9)A + GI (soldier) + TA 
          (volunteers) + TO + RS (sr (senior)) [reversed] = agitators

The above clue uses the word repel to indicate that the letters should be reversed, turning sr into rs. This can apply to a few letters or the entire answer, and is often signified by words like about, sent back and returned. In the 'down clues' the setter will also use words that convey the sense of being elevated, for example:

          A tug sails up a lake (5)A + DRAG (tug) [all reversed] = Garda 

Construction clues often place a group of letters inside another group, like this one:

          Top journalists get business for a royal (5,8)CROWN (top) + PR(INC (business))ESS 
          (journalists) = crown princess 

When indicating that a word or letters should be placed around another element, the setter will use words such as outside, without and orbiting. Concepts such as eating, capturing, receiving and taking are often found too, and a similar word is used in the crown princess clue above. The opposite is true when a word or letters are to be placed inside another element, where words such as in, within and amongst are used, for example:

          An animal that's good at nothing goes inside (4)G (good) + O (nothing) + AT 
          = goat 

Anagram

Clues containing anagrams are ubiquitous in cryptic puzzles. The entire answer can be generated from an anagram;

          An American bank nears liquidation (9)BANK + NEARS [mixed up] = Nebraskan 

or the anagram can form part of the complete answer:

          A country festival includes a mute production (9)G(A MUTE [mixed up])ALA (festival) 
          = Guatemala 

The two examples above use the words liquidation and production to indicate an anagram is required to solve these clues. A whole range of words can be used for this purpose, far too many to list here. However most common are words which communicate a sense of movement, destruction, change etc.

Changing Letters

The basic principle for this type of clue is that a word is altered by one or more letters to arrive at an answer or part of an answer, for example:

          A city car's boot is modified (4)LIMO (car) [last letter changed] = Lima 

The word boot in the clue is used to tie in with the idea of the car, but the sense is clear nonetheless. There are other methods of transferring letters, including moving the first letter of a word to the rear, in order to create something completely different (e.g. spit becoming pits). Rather than being swapped, letters can also be deleted to create a new word or element to an answer. Take this example, which would appear in the 'down clues':

          Not top secret, that's obvious (5)COVERT (secret) [first letter removed] = overt 

As this is a 'down clue' and would be written from top to bottom, using the phrase not top to indicate that the first letter should be deleted from a word meaning secret is perfectly acceptable.

Initialism

As the name suggests, the answer for these clues is often found by looking at the initial letters of words, for example:

          Blackburn Rovers obsess over Millwall's leading sweeper (5)B + R + O + O + M 
          [first letter of each word] = broom 

The setter draws attention to initial letter of words by using terms such as first, primarily, at the front of etc. If it is a 'down clue', words like at the top of or the head of might also appear. Though not technically an initialism, the same principal could also be used with the second or third letters of a string of a words, or indeed the penultimate or last letters. It is relatively rare, however, for an answer to be constructed solely by this technique; more often it is combined with other types of clue:

          Saw six sheep at Land's End (6)VI (six (Roman Numerals)) + EWE (sheep) + D 
          (Land's End = d) = viewed 

A similar practice is to use only the odd or even-numbered letters of words, so taking the odd-numbered letters from squint and the even-numbered letters from creation would reveal the words sun and rain respectively. Once again, this technique is primarily used in conjunction with other types of clue:

          Moan about alley's odd deviation (7)MOAN [mixed up] + ALLEY'S = anomaly 

Words such as regular and irregular could be used instead of even and odd/uneven. Also be on the lookout for words with the element mid-, for example midday literally means in the middle of the day, i.e. a. Using the same principle midnight gives g, midweek gives ee and the middle of nowhere gives h.

Hidden Word

Not unexpectedly, the answer is itself concealed within the clue, for example:

          Generic investigation reveals something toxic (5) → GENERIC INVESTIGATION = ricin 

Concepts suchs as hiding are also used to draw attention to this type of clue, as well as the use of an apostrophe to suggest that part of the clue 'owns' the answer, e.g. Uncle Monty's fruit; the answer being lemon.

Double Meaning

Fairly obviously these clues give words or phrases which have the same meaning:

          Signal for this piece of sports equipment  (3) = cue 

These clues are often relatively simple and can consist of just two words, for example change could be the answer to the clue convert money.

Homophone

The central idea here is to make use of words that sound the same as others when spoken, but are spelt differently, e.g. rain and reign. Here is an example in clue form:

          Told to consume something as a joke (2, 4)INGEST (consume) [sounds like] = in jest 

The setter will use notions of speech, hearing and broadcasting to indicate a homophone forms part (or all) of the answer.

Cryptic Definition

The final category described here is slightly different to the others listed above, in that there are not specific markers within the clue which indicate how it should be solved. Here's an example:

          The ultimate way to travel? (6) = hearse 

The key to solving the above example is, to use a cliché, to think outside the box. Rather than assuming the word ultimate means best, if the word is seen to mean last then only one answer really suggests itself. Clues of this nature require a certain amount of lateral thinking, but often seem surprisingly simple once they've been worked out.

These eight categories cover the majority of techniques used by setters in cryptic crosswords, and should provide beginners with the basic knowledge needed to get started. Any type of clue detailed above could theoretically be used in conjunction with any of the others, so it's important to be flexible. The more puzzles you do, the easier it will become to recognise what kind of clue is in front of you and, consequently, to solve it. Good luck.