How To Solve Cryptic Crosswords

Doing crosswords may be incredibly addictive, but the good news is that it’s a healthy addiction! 

A good puzzle can really reboot your mind, and it’s something that you can return to several times throughout the day when you have a few minutes, or are on the train to and from work. 

The British cryptic crossword is nothing like its quicker counterpart, or indeed anything you are likely to find in crosswords from other nations – these tend to be full of general knowledge questions, the answers of which are either known or can be looked up within seconds. 

The Cryptic Crossword

The cryptic crossword that you find in the UK is a very different sort of beast. In fact, rather than a crossword, it could be called a linguistic workout for the mind.

One of the reasons they work so well and are so much fun is to do is because of the nature of the English language. Given its many influences from around the globe, we all speak a unique jumble of words, in which a single word can have various meanings and there is endless ambiguity.

For example ‘Press’ (4) could mean urge, just as much as it could mean iron. A number of people in a theatre could be an anaesthetist – a different meaning to the word numb.

But with the cryptic puzzle, these kinds of double meanings and wordplay are taken to mind-bending new levels. That’s why, to the uninitiated, clues in cryptic crosswords can seem totally nonsensical. And you can find yourself staring at them for what seems like hours, none the wiser.

Puzzles may also demand anagrams and acrostics. NEAT for example could be Natty, Elegant and Trim Primarily. 

However, the conventions of cryptic crosswords can be picked up more easily and quickly than you may have thought, and are probably fewer in number than you might have thought. What’s more, they all follow the same rules, once you understand how those work. 

And every good crossword will plant a few easier clues, placed strategically, to get the ball rolling. 

Ximenean Principles

The first thing to understand is that all cryptic clues tend to be made up of what are called the Ximenean principles – which say that all cryptic clues can be divided into three basic parts: 

1. An exact definition, in much the same way as a conventional or ‘quick’ crossword clue
2. Some sort of wordplay – this is known as the ‘fair subsidiary indication’ 
3. Absolutely nothing else!

So bear in mind that you need to tease out which parts of the clue are straight definitions and which are wordplay. Don’t do what many who are new to these kinds of crosswords do, which is to read the entire clue as a single phrase. This will hardly ever give you the right solution. 

One tip when learning how to solve cryptic crosswords is to try solving a crossword puzzle with a friend in the first instance – it can help to have someone to have ideas you can bounce off. 

Another one, which may seem slightly odd initially, is to actually try and set a few clues yourself, so that you see it from the point of view of the crossword setter. If you’re wondering, most crossword setters are keen, ultimately, to let the solver emerge victorious, with a finished grid and a grin on their face. Equally, though, most solvers will insist on putting up a fight first.

The famous crime writer Agatha Christie once said that writing her whodunnits was not unlike setting a cryptic puzzle.

“You reckon it’s too crazily easy and that everybody will get it straightaway, and then you’re terribly surprised when they don’t guess it at all.” 

Cracking your clues

Here are some of the devices setters use most commonly to take you towards solving cryptic clues. 

If you will, consider it a basic little toolkit, and remember that a lot of the fun comes from wondering which tool to use next! 

1. Double definition 

With these clues, two frequently very different meanings are given of the answer. So for example ‘alarming disclosure of beauty’ could be ‘bombshell’ with its double meaning of startling revelation and as in blonde bombshell. 

Or ‘press down’ would be ‘decrease’, playing on the double meaning of reducing or decreasing or ironing clothes. 

Beware, sometimes these kinds of clues can make use of rather obscure word meanings! 

2. Cryptic definition 

With these ones, you will find that the answer is given in a somewhat misleading way. So, for example, ‘These lead the way in present transport system’ could be reindeer, playing on the twin meanings of ‘present’ as gift and current. 

3. Anagrams

Half of the clue will offer a definition of the correct answer, while the other half will jumble up the letters in the answer. Often, there’s also a hint as to the fact that there has been a jumbling – words like ‘dodgy’ or ‘disorganised’ and so on are regularly used.

Here’s an example. ‘Collection of documents’ and ‘found to be dodgy’ could come up in the same clue as ‘i.e. dross’ in which case the answer would be dossier, as an anagram of ‘i.e. dross.’ 

4. Hidden 

With these kinds of clues, you get given a definition, along with a number of other words, in which the solution is hidden, shown by an expression such as ‘amid’ or ‘among’ or sometimes even just ‘in’. 

As an example, ‘In Scandinavia grandpa found potent drug’ the answer is Viagra, whose letters are found within the words Scandinavia and grandpa. 

5. Reversal 

These clues provide a definition alongside a description of a word which, when you spell it backwards, will give you the answer. 

So, for example, if you see ‘Statement by filmed divorcee, retracted’ the solution would be ‘remark’ – similar to statement and a reversal of the name Kramer, the movie character famous for getting divorced. 

6. Acrostic 

With these clues, you get a definition along with a hunt that you need to take the initial letters of several other words to get the correct solution. 

So the clue which gives you ‘Does he lead prayer for openers?’ along with ‘Is Mohammed a Muslim?’ would be Imam, or a mosque leader, which takes the first letters of Is Mohammed a Muslim to give you the answer. 

7. Soundalike

With these kinds of clues, the setters will provide a definition, along with an indication that you should consider what a different word sounds like, perhaps by ‘saying’ it out loud. So, for example, ‘Bond is said to be Asian’ would be Thai, which sounds like tie or the ‘bond’ of the clue. 

Here are a couple of others to make you smile. 

‘Potty train’ (four letters) would be – you’ve guessed it – loco. 

‘Two girls, one on each knee’ would be Patella – knee cap but also of course the name of two girls, Pat and Ella. 

Or ‘machine washable but will not go on the couch’ is shrink resistant, playing on safe in the laundry and reluctant to see a psychiatrist, while ‘non-stop flight’ might be ‘escalator’, as in a ‘flight’ of steps which doesn’t stop. 

‘She barely makes an appearance’ would be ‘nudist’. This is a rather unusual interpretation of the word ‘barely.’ 

And Some More

Another thing to bear in mind is that, nearly always, you can find the definition either at the start or end of a clue. So, for instance, ‘Place roughly under top of tree trunk’ would be torso. 

However, the double definition rule explained above can be the one time when you will find an exception. 

Another rule is to ignore all punctuation – cryptic crossword solving is the one time when you should do that! 

Full stops, colons, brackets, commas and capitalisations and the like should not be taken notice of. More often than not, they are included to divide concealed words of anagrams in a way that’s misleading. 

That said, you do need to pay attention when you see exclamation marks or question marks. A question mark often means that you have a clue which demands particular lateral thought, or a quirky interpretation of the words. At the same time, a pun may be involved. An exclamation mark may denote that something needs particular attention.

Finally, do pay attention to every word in the clue, since the setter has placed each one there to have some significance, even if you may find some which are there just so that the clue makes sense grammatically. That also means paying attention to different tenses. So if definition terminates in –ing or –ed, or is a plural, the chances are that the solution will take the same form.

Once you’ve mastered a few basic rules, you will find in cryptic crossword solving a pleasure that will last for the rest of your life, and give you hours of enjoyment. Be patient and persevere, and you will gradually find that you can complete more and more clues and more and more puzzles unaided.