Standard Notation for Cryptic Crossword Solutions

Written By David Nicholls

Part 1 Introduction

I have devised a concise notation for providing explanatory solutions to tricky cryptic crossword clues. I call it – somewhat optimistically – SCAN, for Standard Crossword ANnotation. Although there are other existing methods, SCAN has advantages: it provides easy-to-read, self- explanatory solutions, which can be complete in every detail for the benefit  of beginners. It doesn’t rely on arbitrary notation more cryptic than the puzzle itself!

SCAN is best illustrated using examples (Part 2), but first requires a little introduction to the structure of cryptic clues.

Most clues comprise two main parts: a literal definition and a subsidiary component.

The literal definition is frequently deliberately obscure, to add to the fun, or pain. The boundary with the subsidiary part can be difficult to disentangle, and, to add to the complication, the definition may be placed at the beginning or end of the clue, or occasionally within it.

In SCAN, you indicate literal definitions by enclosing them in square brackets []. If the definition is at the beginning of the clue include an equals sign and the solution word(s) in small caps, like this:
[Unpredictable=SKITTISH]  The small caps are a point size down from normal.
If the definition comes after the subsidiary component, we will have already worked out and displayed the solution, so the notation becomes:
... SKITTISH [=unpredictable].

Sometimes the literal definition words overlap with the subsidiary component, as shown in the example below, where ‘blower’ forms part of the subsidiary and part of the definition.  Simply include the word(s) again within the definition.  The rest of this example will become clear later.
25A  (On regular occasions#extract even letters), tOp BlOwEr > OBOE [=blower plays this].

You might find there are not one but two literal definitions, and not much else:
Daily Mail; Wednesday , December 7, 2016.
10A Small sphere made of glass and stone
10A [Small sphere made of glass=MARBLE]  and [=stone]

Unless the solution is very simple, it helps to give the original clue first, if you have space.
You could call words like ‘and’ in the example above flow or filler words the evil setter has included to make the clue sound sensible, or maybe misdirect you. The policy in SCAN is usually not to annotate filler words, for clarity. Note you always add A or D to the clue number, as some clues only make sense when the the solution is written horizontally, others when vertical. You should also provide a reference to the source publication for the crossword. (All my examples are from the reference above).

Let’s now take a look at the subsidiary part of the clue, which generally allows you to build up the solution another way, and confirm the result you got from the literal definition:

Setters often include data words together with  instruction words which enable you to create fragments of the solution from the data words. You may first extract letters or small groups, say by taking initial letters from a group of data words. You may then have to manipulate them, perhaps by reversing them, truncating them, or re-ordering them. Then you assemble the fragments, usually by concatenating  (joining), but possibly by sandwiching  (embedding) one fragment within another, and so forth.

This time, we use round brackets () to show how each fragment is derived. Instead of an equals sign inside the brackets, we usually employ a right-arrow > (greater-than sign) which can be read as ‘gives’, ‘yields’, ‘produces’ etc. as you prefer. Use an equals sign everywhere to indicate synonymous terms and the > to represent the results of operations such as abbreviations, anagrams, or reversing.Sometimes a back arrow  < may be appropriate to point back to a preceding result.
Each fragment (result) is also indicated by SMALL CAPS, to tie it in visually with the solution.

The final notation in SCAN is the hash+italicised comment  #explanatory comment immediately following a word or phrase as shown in the examples below. You can use any comment you like – frequent ones for instructions could be:  #anag; #abbr;  #sounds like;  #reverse;  #write upwards;  #embed; #embedded; #first letters etc. Comments for data words can indicate anything useful, say the context :   ... (means nothing#tennis =LOVE).

It is useful to type the original clue and copy-and-paste it onto the following line. Then right-arrow through the lower line, adding SCAN code. Don’t delete any text. Suitable keyboard short-cuts are available in most editors; in Microsoft Word you have CTRL+I  to toggle italics on and off, whilst CTRL + < (need SHIFT) reduces font size one point for small caps. CTRL + > increases it back.


Part 2 Examples:

Daily Mail; Wednesday , December 7, 2016.
[literal definition = SOLUTION] (cryptic fragments)  ‘>’  to be read as ‘gives, produces etc.’;  #comment

1A Unpredictable special equipment accompanies this novel
1A [Unpredictable=SKITTISH] (special#abbr >S) (equipment=KIT) accompanies#joins> + (this novel#anag >TISH)>S+KIT+TISH
You might omit some of the more obvious notation, e.g. (special >S) (this novel >TISH). I shall provide full notation below for the benefit of beginners.

5A 5 Hindus, not 500, displayed their deity
5A (5#Roman > V) HINDUS > V+HINDUS, (not#omit  500#Roman > D > -D) > VHIN_US, displayed#anag > VISHNU [=their deity].
Note the cascading operations >D>-D>VHIN_US. Logic might suggest nesting sets of brackets within each other, but you run the risk of merely bamboozling people. Operation words may be out-of-sequence, so entirely logical nesting of brackets may not be possible. The underscore shows where a letter has been removed.

12A Arachnid’s power picked up
12A [Arachnid=MITE] ’s (power = might) (< picked up#sounds like)

15A Tireless and absurdly defiant, I chat to the French
15A [Tireless=INDEFATIGABLE] and (absurdly#anag defiant > INDEFAT),( I chat = I GAB) to#join > + (the French> LE)

19A RN diver seen busily netting one hundred dishes, etc.
19A (RN diver seen busily#jostling>anag >DINNER SERVE) netting#embed (one > I) (hundred#Roman > C) > DINNER SERV-IC-E [=dishes, etc.]

23 Person nicking French fries said he dislikes quotas
23 (Person nicking French fries > frites raider) (said#sounds like > FREE TRADER) [=he dislikes quotas]

25A On regular occasions, top blower plays this.
25A (On regular occasions#extract even letters), tOp BlOwEr > OBOE [=blower plays this]
The literal definition has been intermingled with the subsidiary clues, so display separately.

28A Attribute origin of icon to place in Middle East
28A [Attribute=IMPUTE]  (origin#first letter of icon > I)  (to place = PUT) in#embed (Middle East#abbr > ME) > M-PUT-E > I+MPUTE

29A Remember, Iberians catch disease
29A Remem BER, IBERI ans (< catch#embedded) [ BERI-BERI = disease]

2D Criminal unit acccepting priest’s contribution
2D (Criminal#anag unit>INUT) (acccepting#embed) (priest#abbr > P)’s > IN-P-UT [=contribution]

3D Ring road tax
3D (Ring#as a bell >TOLL [=road tax]
Note I have used the comment ‘as a bell’ – hash comments can be anything you like.

6D Idiotic and crazy to ignore society
6D [Idiotic=INANE] and (crazy=INSANE) (to ignore#omit) (society#abbr > S) > -S > IN_ANE

15D Landlord offers board and lodging in private
15D [Landlord=INNKEEPER] offers (board and lodging=KEEP) (in#embed) (private=INNER) > INN-KEEP-ER

21D English monarch supporting evil doer’s game
21D (English#abbr > E) (monarch=Elizabeth Regina > ER)> E+ER (supporting#writtenbelow) (evil#anag DOER > ROE D) > ROE D+EER ’s [ROE DEER = game]
This clue works well for a vertical solution because of the word ‘supporting’.

22D Maine company enlists detective and doctor
22D (Maine#abbr >ME) (company#abbr >CO) (enlists#embed) (detective>Det. Inspr. > DI) > ME-DI-CO and [=doctor]

24D Count, for instance, first words in book
24D [Count, for instance,= TITLE] [=first words in book]

26D How some musicians play Beethoven overture on time
26D [How some musicians play= BY EAR] (Beethoven overture#first letter > B) (on#write above) (time=YEAR) > B+YEAR  > BY EAR

27D Free up time for gossip
27D (Free=RID) (up#write upwards > DIR) (time#abbr > T) > DIRT#slang for [=gossip]
This clue works for a vertical solution because of the word ‘up’.


Part 3 Summary

SCAN annotation, as you have seen, is very concise yet can provide complete explanations. It does not demand an extensive set of additional symbols – Part 4 provides a complete list for reference. The hash-comment can be as long as necessary, and, since it does not dictate any special wording, it provides great expository power and flexibility. If space is at a premium, you can forgo printing the original clue first, and then reduce the amount of detailed explanation in your solution.
Different annotators will come up with slightly different coding, mainly depending on how much detail of the solution they wish to provide, the comments they use, and grouping of brackets.
Typing SMALL CAPS is a pain, admittedly. However, it saves space, and links the solution typographically – and hence conceptually - to its constituent fragments.
Using SCAN analytically has helped me gain greater insight into the subtleties of clues, and perhaps improved my solving skills – it could do the same for you.


Part 4 Summary of Notation

Notation Definition


Square brackets

Enclose the literal definition part of the clue (and the solution if not already given) e.g.  [Landlord=INNKEEPER]


Round brackets

Separate out components in the subsidiary part which generate fragments of the solution e.g.  (private=INNER)



Free-form comment in italics e.g. #anag  #tennis


Equals sign

Denotes synonymous terms wherever they occur e.g. (Free=RID)


Denotes preceding operation(s) produce the following result e.g. time#abbr > T . Cascade for several operations >RESULT1>RESULT2


Used occasionally  to indicate a preceding result


Small capital letters

Indicate the solution word(s) as well as the fragments from which it may be composed


Addition sign

Indicates concatenation (joining) of fragments e.g.



Shows fragments embedded in the solution e.g. INN-KEEP-ER
 Can also indicate a fragment to be removed e.g. not 500 > -D



Indicates position of letters removed e.g. INSANE > IN_ANE


Part 5 Appendix – Further Examples

9A Replace drink factory
9A [Replace=SUPPPLANT] (drink=SUP) (factory=PLANT)

13A Billet doux means nothing to landlord.
13A [Billet doux=LOVE LETTER] (means nothing#tennis =LOVE) to#join (landlord=LETTER)

30A Stone gate smashed,  out of service
30A [Stone=GARNET]  (gate smashed#anag > GA-ET),  (out of#put around) (service>Royal Navy>RN) > GA-RN-ET)

31A Handel composed one speech, not all about soldiers
31A [Handel composed one=ORATORIO] (speech = ORATION), (not all > ORATIO) (about#put around) (soldiers =Other Ranks > OR) > ORAT-OR-IO

1D Oil producer assesses American imports
1D [Oil producer=SESAME] asses-SES AME-rican (<imports#embedded)

4D Car feature for US? No, it needs to be redesigned
4D [Car feature=SUNROOF] (FOR US? NO,< it needs to be redesigned#anag > SUNROOF)

7D Hotel gets rather efficient, fit to be occupied
7D (Hotel#abbr > H) (gets#join) (rather =A BIT) (efficient=ABLE),> H+ABIT+ABLE [= fit to be occupied]

8D Type of income posh editor receives close to November
8D [Type of income= UNEARNED] (posh#old-fashioned expression > U ) (editor#abbr > ED) >U-ED (receives #embed) (close to=NEAR) (November#abbr > N) > U-NEAR-N-ED

11D Kid son on board plane
11D [Kid=JEST] (son#abbr > S)  (on board#embed) (plane=JET) > JE-S-T

14D Cutting tool provides extra, they say
14D [Cutting tool=ADZE] (provides extra=ADDS),(< they say#sounds like)

16D Area you and I fear
16D (Area#abbr > A] (you and I = WE] > A+WE [= fear]

17D Carriage opening discussed
17D [Carriage=GAIT] (opening=GATE) (< discussed#sounds like)

18D It’s instructive watching over department, if boring
18D [It’s instructive=EDIFYING] (watching =EYING] (over#place around) (department#abbr > D) > E-D-YING , (if boring#embed > ED-IF-YING

20D Criticise religion, not its leader
20D [Criticise=SLAM] (religion=ISLAM), (not its leader#remove first letter >_SLAM)


David Nicholls
Honiton, Devon
12 December 2016