Making a Start on a Cryptic Crossword

By Denise Sutherland

Part of Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies Cheat Sheet (Australian Edition)

While they do look completely incomprehensible at first glance, cryptic clues are actually written along strict guidelines. The majority of clues in a cryptic crossword adhere to these standards:

  • Every cryptic clue includes a straight definition of the answer, just like in a ‘regular’ crossword. Astonishing, but true!

  • The definition part of the clue will always be at the start or end of the clue, and never sandwiched in the middle.

  • Most cryptic clues run along the lines of this formula: Definition + Wordplay = Answer, or Wordplay + Definition = Answer.

  • The definition may be a straight synonym, or a more oblique reference to the answer.

  • There are nine main wordplay devices used in cryptics: anagrams, reversals, deletions, charades, containers, hidden words, double definitions, homophones, and cryptic definitions.

  • Abbreviations are used a great deal in cryptic clues, so it’s important to get a handle on these.

  • The best way to tackle a cryptic clue is to try to ignore the first impression you get from reading the clue, and look at each word in the clue one by one to see if you can discover the definition and wordplay.

  • There’s no need to solve the clues in a crossword in order, just look through the list until you see one that you think you might be able to get out.

  • In general, you can ignore the punctuation in a clue — it’s mostly just there to mislead you!

  • It’s perfectly okay to use a thesaurus to look for synonyms for the words at the start and end of the clue to see if they reveal the answer (from the definition). You can always work out the wordplay part after the fact, and try to figure out what the setter has done to make the clue work. It’s all part of the learning process!

  • Different setters write clues slightly differently, so it’s best to get used to one setter’s style at first, rather than solving cryptics from all over the place.