Spotting Indicator Words When Solving Cryptic Crosswords

By Denise Sutherland

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

Indicator words are vital words that are found in many (but not all) cryptic clues for crosswords. These are words that indicate the type of wordplay being used, so they’re giving you a sort of coded message about what to do to get to the answer.

The main clue devices that should always use indicator words are anagrams, containers, hidden words, reversals, deletions and homophones. Double definition and charade clues don’t have to have indicator words, but they are occasionally used. Cryptic definition clues don’t use indicator words, although they are often indicated with a question mark or exclamation mark. (This is one of the few times where you do need to pay attention to the punctuation!).

Here is a list of the sorts of words you’ll find for these indicator words below. If you can learn to spot indicator words by context, you’ll have more cryptic solving success.

  • Anagram indicators: These are words that give a sense of some word or words in the clue being jumbled up. These words can give a sense of things being broken, damaged, cooked, confused, upset, edited, ugly, insane, invented, engineered, out of sorts, designed, mishandled, drunk, built, versatile, rearranged, smashed, askew and so on (ad infinitum?!).

  • Container indicators: These are words that give a sense of one thing being put around another thing, or one thing being put inside another thing. So words such as acquiring, keeping, possessing, devouring, hugging, amidst, occupying, getting into and set in can be used.

  • Hidden word indicators: Hidden word indicators give a sense of something being found inside something else. Container indicators are often used, too. They may be words like a bit of, buried in, essentially, fragment, held in, part of or sample of.

  • Reversal indicators: These indicators tell you to run some letters or a word backwards. They are words that give a sense of reversal (not surprisingly!) such as around, backslide, brought about, come back, flipped over, going west, knocked over or reflected. In down clues, a reversal indicator can give a sense of rising upwards, for example held up, lifted or skyward.

  • Deletion indicators: These are words that tell you to delete some letters from a word. They give a sense of removal such as absent, excluding, losing, not, dropped, cut, without or short. Letter positions can also be indicated with deletion clues such as first, head, opener, tail, end, conclusion, half, middle, centre and so on.

  • Homophone indicators: These words give a sense of something being listened to or said aloud. They can include words such as on the air, broadcast, I hear, said, declared, audibly, outspoken, reportedly, sounds like and vocal.

  • Double definition and charade indicators: These clue devices don’t have to have indicator words, but if they are used, they generally just give a sense of one thing following another, being added to another, or of one thing leading from another. Words such as and, but, in which, makes, provides, next to, joining, on and with may be used.