Cheat Sheet

Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (Australian Edition)

From Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies by Denise Sutherland

Cryptic crosswords are often seen as a challenging puzzle form — delight may be rare to anyone new to this type of brain teaser! On first reading, the clues can seem to be made up of complete gibberish. However, cryptic crosswords actually conform to a set of rules and they can be solved! In this Cheat Sheet, you will discover some handy pointers on how cryptic clues go together, the basics of the main cryptic devices, and a brief introduction to cryptic abbreviations often found in clues.

Understanding Cryptic Clue Anatomy

While they do look completely incomprehensible at first glance, cryptic clues are actually written along set 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. It’s 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 wordplay is the (hopefully) fun part, and can use one, or a combination of, about 8 or 9 main clue types. Wordplay devices include anagrams, reversals, deletions and so on.

  • The definition part of a cryptic clue may be a straightforward dictionary definition, or a more oblique or unusual definition.

  • Identifying the definition section of the clue is a vital part of solving a cryptic clue. Once you think you’ve pinned it down, the remainder of the clue is automatically the wordplay!

  • Many cryptic clues include ‘indicator words’, which are a word or a short phrase that tells you what sort of wordplay is being used in the clue.

Getting to Grips with Cryptic Crossword Devices

There are about eight main types of wordplay devices used in cryptic crossword clues and a bunch of less common ones. Here you’ll find the basic points of the main devices.


  • An anagram is a device where the letters from one word, or a few words, are jumbled up to form another word (the answer to the clue). For example, TRIMS CASH is an anagram of CHRISTMAS.

  • The letters to be rearranged are in clear view in the clue. These words are called the anagram ‘fodder’. Abbreviations are occasionally included in the anagram fodder.

  • An anagram clue has to have an anagram indicator, which tells you some words in the clue have to be rearranged. There are hundreds of possible anagram indicators. Any word that gives the impression of something being broken, confused and so on, could be one!

  • The longest words in the crossword grid are very often clued with anagrams.


  • A charade clue is one where one part is added to another to get the answer. For example, CARAWAY can be clued as a charade of CAR + AWAY.

  • The parts that are added together are typically synonyms, words ‘in the clear’ (words seen in the clue without needing to find a synonym), or abbreviations, or combinations of these.

  • Charades don’t generally have indicator words. They occasionally have linking words such as with, has, and, and similar, to join the parts.

  • Charades are a common clue device and can be used in conjunction with other clue devices.

  • All cryptic crosswords include at least some, if not many, charade clues.


  • The container clue device is one set of letters, or a short word, put inside another word.

  • Indicator words are used in the containment device, and will indicate that you need to put one thing inside another. Just a few examples: aboard, among, breaking and within.

  • Container clues can also be clued as one word out around another word.

  • The sorts of indicator words used give a sense of surrounding, such as astride, clutching, eating, going around, outside, protecting, and wrapping. The parts to be put together are usually synonyms of words in the clue, abbreviations, or a combination of these.

  • This is a very common device, and can be used in conjunction with other clue devices.


  • A deletion cryptic device is one or a few letters being deleted from another word, to get to the answer. For example, END can be clued as MEND - M, or FRIEND - FRI, or …

  • An indicator word or two is always needed in a deletion clue. These are words which give a sense (not surprisingly) of something being deleted. A few examples: abandoned, almost, cut, excluding, forgetting, lacking, leaving, missing, not, shed, wanting, without.

  • Letter position is sometimes indicated in these clues (first, middle, last, half, etc). This is a common cryptic device, and can be used in conjunction with other devices.


  • Reversals are a cryptic device where one word, or a part of a word, is reversed to get to the answer. For example, OGRE is ERGO reversed.

  • Indicator words give a sense of something being reversed, such as backfiring, back to front, coming back, contrary, go around, inverted, recalled, and spun.

  • * Down clues can also have reversal indicators that give a sense of words rising upwards, such as ascending, elevated, hoisted, raised, and skyward.

  • Reversals are a common device, and can be used in conjunction with other devices.


  • Homophones are words that sound like other words, but are spelt differently. For example, BOW and BEAU are homophones.

  • Homophone clues have indicator words that give a sense that something needs to be heard, spoken, or broadcast. Some examples: aloud, audibly, by the sound of it, declared, for the listener, I hear, in speech, on the radio, orally, and verbal.

  • This is a less common device, and a crossword will generally have only a few or even none.

Double Definitions

  • In a double definition clue, there are simply two different definitions for the answer put next to each other. For example, DESERT can mean an arid sandy place, or to abandon someone.

  • Double definition clues vary from the usual “Wordplay + Definition = Answer” equation. Their equation is “Definition 1 + Definition 2 = Answer”.

  • Indicator words are not generally used, although sometimes a linking word or two is used, such as and, but, from, gives, makes, or that.

  • This is a moderately common cryptic device, so keep an eye out for them!

Hidden Words

  • The letters of the answer are in plain sight, in a hidden word clue! They are sitting within other words of the clue. For example, the word TENT can be hidden in kitTEN Temper.

  • Indicator words are used, these will give a sense of containment, such a bit of, buried in, concealed by, essentially, from, held by, in part, sample of, or within. Container indicator words can also be used.

  • Sometimes the alternate letters of a word are indicated. These can be indicated an instruction to look at the alternate, regular, odd, or even letters of a word in the clue.

  • This is a less common cryptic device, as these clues are relatively easy to solve.

Cryptic Definitions

  • Cryptic definition clues are different from the standard cryptic equation. In a cryptic definition clue, the whole clue works as a funny or quirky definition for the answer. There isn’t any wordplay in the usual sense of the word, and there aren’t any indicator words. For example, a wicked thing is a cryptic definition for CANDLE (because it has a wick, groan).

  • A question or exclamation mark is often used at the end of these clues.

  • These clues are seen in most cryptics; some setters use them a lot, some use them a little.

Tackling Abbreviations Used in Cryptic Crossword Clues

Abbreviations are widely used in cryptic clues, and many clue devices use them. You will come across abbreviations in charade, container, reversion and deletion clues in particular, and in some anagram clues.

Cryptic abbreviations can often trip up new solvers, so gaining some familiarity with these is a great way to improve your cryptic solving skills. There are hundreds of possible abbreviations, so reference lists are definitely handy.

Many cryptic abbreviations are quite straightforward and in common use. For example: north = N, left = L, oxygen = O, and that is = IE. The phonetic alphabet is often used (foxtrot = F, sierra = S, etc), as well as musical symbols (soft = P, for piano, loud = F, for forte, soprano = S etc) and cricketing terms (duck = O, from a score of 0, run out = RO etc).

However, there are a bunch of abbreviations that are decidedly odd, and which you really need to be told about to understand. These can really present stumbling blocks to the uninitiated! A lot of these are British, and come from an earlier time when cryptics were first developed (in the 1940s and 1950s). Many of these abbreviations stem from British divisions in the World Wars, or from school boy slang.

As an example of this, meal ticket = LV (luncheon voucher, part of a WWII scheme in the UK), main road = MI (looks like M1), lines = BR (British Rail), and beware = CAVE (from the Latin word for “beware”, which was used as schoolboy slang).

The best way to spot abbreviations in cryptic clues is to look at each word of a clue in turn, and see if it might lead to a common abbreviation. Looking up single letter entries in any dictionary will provide you with good lists of the common abbreviations. For the more specialised cryptic abbreviations, try using a cryptic crossword dictionary such as Chambers or Bradford’s, or looking for lists online.

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