Tips for Solving

When people first encounter cryptic crosswords, many find themselves at a loss, even after years of solving traditional crossword puzzles. The cryptic crossword grid is similar to that of an ordinary crossword, but the clues are phrases or sentences that seemingly have little to do with the answers that go into the diagram. Deciphering these clues is the charm of the cryptic crossword, since each clue is a sort of self-contained puzzle. Once you understand the basic concepts of cryptic clues, you'll be ready to appreciate that charm yourself.

Each cryptic clue has two parts: a definition of the answer and an indication of that answer through wordplay. Either half may come first in the clue, but there is a point at which the clue can be divided into these two parts. (There is an exception to this rule, the & Lit clue, but we'll get to that later.) With two routes to the answer, you would expect cryptic clues to be easy to solve. But the two halves of the clue are often cleverly joined in ways that make it hard to tell where they separate. In addition, both parts may contain words which appear to mean something completely different than what they actually indicate. For example, "putter" in a clue may seem to refer to a golf club but may actually mean "dawdle." Like a magician, the cryptic clue tricks you with misdirection.

By tradition, cryptic clues are followed by the enumeration of the answer. An enumeration is a number or set of numbers in parentheses indicating the length of the answer word or words. For example, "(10)" means the answer is a ten-letter word, while "(3,2,5)" indicates a phrase, consisting of three words of three-, two-, and five-letters respectively, as 'in the know." It seems superfluous to give enumerations when the length of the answer should be apparent from the grid, but there are valid reasons for this practice. Not only does it help to find answers that are phrases, but many variety cryptics use novel grids in which the lengths of answers aren't obvious. (Ironically, many variety puzzles will omit the enumeration, to make solving more of a challenge.)

Common Wordplay Types

Below are the nine common types of cryptic play. Many of the clues are borrowed from Games magazine (I'll give them back when I'm done), but enough of the surrounding text has been changed to avoid litigation.


In anagram clues, the wordplay half contains all the letters of the answer in mixed order. The rearranged letters are immediately preceded or followed by an "anagram indicator" -- a word or phrase that suggests mixing, such as "wild," "drunk," "needs repair," or "muddled." For example:

Chaperone undoing corset (6)

The answer escort, or "chaperone" is the result of "undoing" the letters of "corset." Here's another:

Model in a studio tries out for a part (9)

This clue tries to fool you into reading the word "model" as a noun, but it's really a verb, telling you to "model" the letters of "in a studio" to get the answer, auditions, ("tries out for a part").

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Two parts of the anagram clue can give it away: the anagram indicator and a word or group of words with the same enumeration as the answer. If you find both of these parts in a clue, it's likely to be an anagram.

Tips for Solving:
When you've discovered the word or phrase that is the anagram fodder, write it backwards. This removes any connection with the original clue, and makes the answer easier to spot.


In the parlor game of charades, answers are acted out in pieces; likewise, some words can be broken into smaller words that are clued individually in a clue's wordplay. For example:

Outlaw leader putting money away (7)

The answer banking ("putting money away") can be broken into ban ("outlaw") and king ("leader").

Charades may also have more than two parts:

Check for concrete strengthening (13)

The answer reinforcement ("strengthening") is made up of rein ("check"), for and cement ("concrete").

While pieces of a charade are usually clued by synonyms, they can also be given explicitly (like for in the previous example). In more complex charades, the parts may be clued out of order, with instructions for putting them together. For example:

Friend follows child completely (7)

The clue says that ally ("friend") follows, or is placed after, tot ("child") to make the answer totally.

Sometimes the answer is divided into pieces which can be clued as a phrase. As an example, tangent can be broken into tan gent:

Touching beach bum? (7)

Once again, the question mark indicates that there's a pun involved.

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Since charade clues usually don't contain indicators, there's nothing specific to look for. Certain common word beginnings appear often, however, for example: con ("prisoner"), ex ("former" or "former spouse"), re ("concerning" or "about"), and imp ("mischievous one" or "devil"). When you spot one of these, it's likely to be a charade clue.

Tips for Solving:
Since these clues are hard to spot, it stands to reason that they're also among the hardest clues to solve. If you can't work it out from the hints in the word play, the best bet is to solve some of the crossing clues first, and try to work out the answer from the supplied letters.


Some words can be looked at as one word contained within another. For example, patients is the word tie inside the word pants.
A clue for patients might read:

Hospital residents make knots in trousers (8)

The clue instructs you to put the word tie ("make knots") inside the word pants ("trousers"). Container clues include some word or phrase -- a 'container indicator' -- telling you which part goes inside the other. The simplest indicator is "in". Other container indicators include "within," "interrupts," and "filling," or, if the containing word precedes the contained word in the clue, "holds," "surrounding," and "swallows."

Here's a tricky example of the latter order:

Russet bears are raised (6)

The word red ("russet") contains, or "bears," the word are to form the answer reared.

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Words or phrases which suggest containment are tip-offs to container clues. Look for indicators like "clutches," "goes around," "held by," and "wrapping." Be aware, however, that many container indicators can also be used to signal hidden answers.

Tips for Solving:
Like charades, these can be pretty hard to solve. If you've determined that it's not a hidden answer. If you can figure out the synonyms in the wordplay, try piecing them together until they make sense. If not, do the crossing clues until you have more letters to work with.


Many words become different words when they lose letters, and deletion clues use this. There are three basic types of deletion clues: beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions. In each type, the clue contains a word or phrase indicating the deletion. The clues that follow all lose a single letter, but a deletion can be any number of letters.

In beheadments, a word loses its first letter. For example, changing becomes hanging when its first letter is dropped. This suggests the following clue:

Beheading being switched for gallows execution (7)

The clue tells you that "beheading" or removing the first letter of changing ("being switched"), will give you the answer hanging ("gallows execution"). Other beheadment indicators include "don't start", "topless", and "after the first".

Curtailments involve the removal of the last letter. For example:

Fiery bird without a tail (7)

The answer flaming ("fiery") is flamingo ("bird") without the last letter, or "tail". Curtailment indicators also include "endlessly", "nearly", and "unfinished".

An interior letter may also be deleted. For example:

Challenging sweetheart heartlessly (6)

The answer daring ( "challenging ") is darling ("sweetheart") without the middle letter ("heartlessly"). An indicator for an internal deletion may also tell you what letter to remove. For example, dolt without the third letter is dot:

Dolt missing third period (3)

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Words and phrases suggesting the removal or lack of something, in particular a top, front, bottom, or end, are probably deletion indicators. A few of these indicators end with "-less": "topless", "headless", "endless", "bottomless", et cetera.

Tips for Solving:
Obviously, just run down a list of synonyms, and see what you get when you delete the appropriate letter(s).

Double Definitions

A double definition clue is different from the other types of clues in that there is no wordplay; instead there are two definitions. "Carry" and "a grizzly," for example, are both synonyms for the word bear. A clue for bear might read:

Carry a grizzly (4)

The two meanings may also have different pronunciations. For example, polish might be clued:

Shoe coating from Warsaw (6)

Some words, while not having two meanings, look as though they might mean something else that can be clued as a pun. For example, the word stingy, if viewed as sting-y might lead to this clue:

Ungenerous, like a bee? (6)

while Spanish (span-ish) suggests:

People from Madrid like bridges? (7)

The question marks, as with normal crossword clues, indicate that there's a pun in the clue.

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Clues using double meanings are usually fairly short, sometimes only two words.

Tips for Solving:
The best way is to pick one of the words, and mentally compile a list of synonyms. One of those words will also be a synonym for the other word. Puns are a little harder to solve this way, but it's still possible.

Hidden Answers

Sometimes the entire answer appears in the wordplay half of the clue, hidden within other words. For example:

Title held by Don Ameche (4)

The answer, name ("title") is concealed in ("held by") the name "Don Ameche." Hidden answer clues always include an indicator (similar to the indicator in a container clue) which signals that the answer is hidden in the phrase that follows. Here is another clue:

Don't he-men demand to keep getting healthier? (2,3,4)

The phrase "Don't he-men demand" keeps the answer on the mend. (In this case, the question mark doesn't indicate a pun: it's there because the clue asks a question.)

Sometimes the answer is hidden in alternating letters of a phrase:

Odd characters in the way seem to poke fun (5)

The answer tease ("to poke fun") is found in the odd letters of "ThE wAy SeEm".

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Look for hidden indicators like "hides," "incorporates," "is part of," and "going through." Remember, though, that these can also signal container clues.

Tips for Solving:
Check every concessive chunk of the clue of the same length as the desired answer. If it's not contained within the wordplay, then it's a container clue.


A homophone clue may be used when the answer sounds like another word or phrase. For example, a clue for eight (a homophone of ate) might be:

Octet had dinner, we hear (5)

Homophone clues always contain a word or phrase -- a "homophone indicator" -- which designates the phonetic portion of the wordplay. In the previous example, the phrase "we hear" indicates the homophone. Other indicators are "reportedly," "vocal," "to the audience," and "by the sound."

The homophone indicator is always adjacent to the answer's homophone. Consider the following example:

Ordinary jet is heard (5)

The answer plain is a homophone of plane. Since the clue tells us that "jet is heard" we understand that we want a homophone of plane.

The homophone doesn't have to be a single word:

Counted unfeeling warbler, they say (8)

The answer, numbered sounds the same as numb bird ("unfeeling warbler").

Hints for Spotting This Type:
There is a limited number of homophone indicators, which makes spotting homophone clues rather easy. Look for words or phrases that suggest that part of the clue is to be heard or pronounced.

Tips for Solving:
As with double definitions, mentally list the synonyms for the homophone. As you sound them out, you should encounter one which sounds like a synonym for the definition, as well.


Some words, when written backward, spell other words. Reversal clues make use of this. For example, the word regal spelled backward is lager. A cryptic clue for regal might read:

Returned beer fit for a king (5)

Every reversal clue contains a word or phrase -- a "reversal indicator" -- indicating the switched order, as with the word "returned" in the previous example. Reversal indicators also include "receding", "in the mirror", "going the wrong way", "heading west," or even just "left". Indicators in Down clues generally refer to an upward direction, rather than backward -- "up", "rising", "overturned", and "to the north". Here's a possible Down clue:

Comfortable arms raised (4)

The answer snug ("comfortable') is guns ("arms") written upward, or "raised." (The answer is snug, because the reversal indicator is adjacent to the word "arms" in the clue, telling you to reverse guns to get the answer.)

A reversal may use more than one word, like a reversed version of a charade clue:

Turn to important person making a comeback (5)

To VIP (''to important person") reversed, or "making a comeback", gives us the answer pivot ("turn").

Hints for Spotting This Type:
Any word or phrase suggesting something is reversed or in the wrong direction is a sign of a reversal clue. Indicators like "swiveled", "flipped over", "around", "upside-down", and "lifted" are some examples.

Tips for Solving:
Obviously, look for synonyms which can be revered to form other words.


In this type of clue, the two parts of the clue -- the definition and wordplay -- overlap completely, so the clue is at the same time both a cryptic indication and a definition of the answer. This type of clue is called an "& lit." clue, because the answer explanation traditionally ends with "& lit.", short for "and literally so".

Here's an example:

Terribly angered! (7)

The answer, enraged, is both an anagram (or "terrible" arrangement) of angered and a word meaning "terribly angered".
Here's another one:

I, for one, am reflected! (5)

The answer, image, is I plus e.g. ("for one") and am "reflected."

Hints for Spotting This Type:
The exclamation point at the end of the clue is the traditional signal for an "& lit." clue.

Tips for Solving:
Think about what the literal definition might be, first. If that gives you no clue, try to work it out like a charade.

Additional Notes

It's common for two or more of the eight basic cryptic methods to be combined in a clue. For example:

Illustrious baron returns in pit (9)

The answer honorable ("illustrious") is clued as a container with part reversed: baron reversed ("returns") in hole ("pit").

Some words don't lend themselves to simple combinations of the basic methods, so often one or two letters will be clued individually. You can expect to see common abbreviations ("doctor" may stand for dr, "Hawaii" for hi, and "college" for u), chemical symbols ( "iron" for fe), and parts of words ("end of year" for r, "head of cabbage" for c, "heart of stone" for o, "half-dollar" for dol or lar).

These tips have explained the fundamentals of cryptic clues, but there is no substitute for actual hands-on experience. Try solving some of the sample clues, and see if you don't enjoy this as much as I do.