Getting to Grips with Cryptic Crossword Devices - dummies

Getting to Grips with Cryptic Crossword Devices

By Denise Sutherland

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

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.