Puzzletome Crossword Tutorial




We'll start by explaining a couple of terms that will be used throughout this tutorial, and which in actual fact go a long way towards removing some of the mystery of cryptic clues to the uninitiated. Also, note that use will be made of CAPITAL LETTERS to indicate answers or parts of answers to clues, and emphasized highlighting (italicised on most browsers) to indicate clue text.

Straight/quick crossword clues (i.e. non-cryptic clues) simply contain a definition that is a synonym (in some form or other) of the answer and leading directly to it. So for example, the answer FATE might have the definition destiny.

Cryptic clues contain both a definition and wordplay. Wordplay (also known as the subsidiary part of the clue) provides an alternative way of yielding the same answer. It There are many different ways of implementing wordplay. One example might be as an anagram. So an example for the answer FATE could be anagram of feat. The major part of this tutorial will concentrate on how the wordplay is constructed.

The definition part should appear at either the beginning or end of the clue whilst various elements of wordplay could appear anywhere. During the solving process, one method will normally enable you to get the answer and the other used to double-check it's accuracy. However, which does which will vary from clue to clue (and probably from solver to solver).

For aesthetic purposes (usually to form proper sentences) the two parts will be joined by one or more connecting words. Sometimes, identifying these connecting words can help to determine which part of the clue is the definition and which part is the wordplay, although don't underestimate the role of the compiler in trying to hide this from the solver. The best compilers will try to ensure that these connecting words make sense in the context of the clue construction. For instance, a potential complete (if somewhat simplistic) clue for the word FATE could be anagram of feat destiny. However, this is not really a sentence that makes sense. Much better to say anagram of feat is destiny. This has the meaning that if you anagram the word feat, the result IS a word defined by destiny. There may be times when it is a choice between including an extraneous connecting word to make sense, and excluding it for a pure cryptic clue. This is likely to come down to the general preferences of the individual compiler.


In general, punctuation can be ignored in cryptic clues. Some compilers may use punctuation in a cunning way to suggest that the clue should be broken up in a different manner to that which will lead to solving it. An artificial example might be Shoved narrow, boat D where narrow and boat need to be combined to clue BARGE (the complete answer being BARGED).

However there are two notable exceptions to the rule of ignoring punctuation:

Exclamation mark (!)
An exclamation mark is used to indicate that the solver must consider the clue as a literal description of the answer. Take for instance the clue Some thought it an ice-breaker! for TITANIC. (This is an example of a hidden clue, which is explained below.) There is no standard definition for the answer, but the meaning of the entire clue is intended to point towards it. However, note that some compilers use the exclamation mark more as an indication of having come up with (in their opinion) a good clue. If the normal definition and wordplay elements are both present, then this is probably incorrect usage.
Question mark (?)
A question mark is used to indicate that the solver must think in a non-standard way to solve the clue. Take for instance the clue should hard man have his head at last? for OUGHT. The wordplay consists of hard man (for TOUGH) but the T needs to be taken from the beginning and put at the end. This is not one of the standard cryptic crossword techniques, so the question mark helps the solver to think in a non-standard way.


One of the most prevalent aspects to cryptic crosswords is the use of abbreviations. These allow the compiler to clue short substrings in a consistent way, perhaps making the rest of the clue easier to indicate. An extensive knowledge of abbreviations is a powerful weapon in the solver's armoury. Below some of the more common, but perhaps less obvious, are listed. However, it is out of the scope of this tutorial to provide anything like an exhaustive list. Please refer to a website such as Acronym Finder or a good dictionary for more examples.

about RE, C, CA (circa)
alien ET (extra-terrestrial)
artist(s) / painter(s) RA (royal academy)
bearing / direction / point N, S, E, W, NE, etc.
beginner L (learner)
book(s) NT (new testament), OT (old testament)
church CH, CE (church of england), RC (roman catholic)
city NY, LA, EC (city of london postcode), UR (ancient persian city)
cross / kiss X
current AC, DC, AMP, AD (anno domini)
debt(s) IOU(S)
degree / graduate BA (bachelor of arts), MA (master of arts)
disc O (shape), EP, LP, CD
doctor / medic BM, MB, MD, MO, GP, DR, DOC
dry TT (teetotal)
duck / love / nothing / zero O (score of 0)
egg / ring O (shape)
europe EC (european community)
exercise PE, PT
fashionable/home IN
firm CO (company)
frenchman M (monsieur)
game RU (rugby union)
gold OR (heraldry)
good man ST (saint)
grand G, M, K (1000)
home counties SE (south-east of england)
horse GG (gee-gee, slang)
jack TAR, AB, SALT (sailor terms)
journalist ED (editor)
junction T
key / note A, B, C, D, E, F, G (music)
king / queen / monarch R (latin rex/regina), GR (george rex), ER (elizabeth regina)
last month ULT (latin ultimo)
order OBE, OM (order of merit)
model T (model t ford)
never-never HP (hire purchase)
number I, V, X, L, C, D, M (roman numerals), N, NO
odds SP (starting price)
one I, A, AN
oriental E (east)
party DO (slang), LAB, LIB, CON, REP, DEM (political parties)
peacekeepers UN (united nations)
plane MIG (type of plane)
pole N, S
posh U (upper class)
record EP, LP
setter I, ME (setter of the crossword)
soldiers OR (other ranks)
team XI (players in football or cricket team)
this month INST (latin instante mense)
ulster NI (northern ireland)
unknown X, Y, Z, N (mathematical variable)
way RD (road), ST (street), AVE (avenue)
work OP (opus)


Numbers are used quite commonly in cryptic crossword and (as might be expected) can have more than one interpretation. The possibilities include:

Direct reference
A number can be a reference of some kind to the answer to another clue in the crossword. So if the answer to 1 across was SUN then a separate clue for SUNDIAL might be 1 ring clock where ring is DIAL, clock is the definition and 1 is a direct reference to the answer SUN.
Indirect reference
Almost the same as a direct reference, the solution to another clue can be used as the definition (or wordplay) in the current clue. So if the answer to 1 across was STAR then a separate clue for SUNDIAL might be 1 ring clock where 1 is an indirect reference to the answer STAR, which defines SUN.
Roman numeral
These will normally be referenced in a clue, with the corresponding Roman numeral being required as part of the answer. So the clue Fifty consumed dead would be L (Roman 50) plus ATE (consumed) giving a solution of LATE (dead).

Clue Categories

The remainder of this tutorial will focus on the various categories of cryptic crossword clues. Perhaps one of the most important abilities in solving cryptics is being able to recognise and select the type of clue you are presented with. Knowing the construction goes a long way towards solving success. The most common ones are as follows:

Each of these is explained below.

Standard Clue

This is probably the simplest example of the use of the definition and wordplay elements. The wordplay will simply indicate, in order, some subsets of the complete clue. The wordplay will be preceded or followed by the definition. So for the word UPPERCASE: the definition could be capital; UP can be clued as high; PER could be for each; and CASE might be given by event. Example complete clues are therefore:

UPPERCASE - Capital high for each event
UPPERCASE - High for each event gives capital

If well written, these standard clues can be made tricky to distinguish from other types since there is not necessarily any obvious feature (keyword) to pick out. In particular, it may not be obvious whether the definition appears at the beginning or end of the clue. Some more examples of this clue type are:

RIGIDITY - Manipulate identification - it's Yankee resistance to change (RIG + ID + IT + Y)
BLITHE - Carefree, black and supple (B + LITHE)
TIER - Draw right row (TIE + R)

Multiple Definition Clue

As the name suggests, this is simply a clue where the wordplay is itself one or more definition(s) of the answer. Nearly always this will be just one more, making the clue a double definition. Occasionally triples will be seen, and these can be surprisingly difficult to identify. (I personally have never seen a quadruple or higher one, but the possibility exists.) Some examples of this type of clue include:

BEAR - Put up with large animal (double definition)
STRESS - Emphasize worry (double definition)
SET - Agreed rigid collection (triple definition)

Anagram Clue

The wordplay of an anagram clue consists of the actual anagrammed letters plus another word or phrase indicating that you will need to swap around those letters. This can often make the anagram clue relatively easy to identify, unless of course the compiler has been very devious in hiding the fact! There are many possible alternatives, but examples of keywords to look out for are "about", "arranged", "broken", "confused", etc. If we return to the example clue for FATE used in the terminology section, saying anagram of feat is destiny is a bit of giveaway. It is far more likely to see something like:

FATE - Difficult feat is destiny

Here obviously the anagram indicator is the word "difficult". Some further examples of this type of clue follow:

CONIFERS - These trees grow from fir cones
ORCHESTRA - Group confuse carthorse
CAPERED - Jumped about with strange red pace

Container Clue

Sometimes it is not possible (or convenient) to construct meaningful subsidiary parts in the wordplay to a clue. Take for instance the answer MINARET. Although there are ways to split it into small consecutive sections, a very neat breakdown is to note that the word ARE appears inside the word MINT. We could define MINARET as tower, MINT as fresh and ARE as live.

Like anagram clues, if we are using a container like this we need to indicate it with appropriate words. In this case some typical examples are "inside", "amid", "filling", etc if we are explaining from the point of view of the contained words, and "around", "holds", "has", etc from the container side. So we have this possibility for the complete clue:

MINARET - Live in fresh tower

Further examples of this type of clue include:

ONRUSHING - Running strongly, legbone cracks on cover (SHIN contained in ON + RUG)
GERMANE - Pertinent for actor Richard holding guy (GERE containing MAN)
DROWNS - Stops breathing underwater - have doctors about (DRS containing OWN)

Subtraction Clue

If clever wordplay can be found but one or more letters are extraneous to the answer then it may be necessary to indicate that the letter(s) need to be removed from the answer. Keywords indicating this include "lost", "removed", "without" etc. So a possible clue using this technique (and I'm not claiming this is overly clever!) could be for the answer HIRES. A compiler may wish to clue this using the word theirs. To allow this, the letter T must be removed, and so a possible indicator is lost time. The complete clue could be:

HIRES - Employs lost time when theirs is broken

Further examples of this type of clue include:

LAVISHER - Charles IV beheaded and displayed in more opulent style (anagram of CHARLESIV minus C)
STRESS - Emphasize that naughty sisters forgot one (anagram of SISTERS minus I)
ARROW - Slim dropping North pointer (NARROW minus N)

Hidden Clue

Hidden clues occur where the answer is actually written out within the clue but hidden in some way. This can happen in several ways, the most typical being:

So some examples of this are:

PART - Extract bipartisan section (biPARTisan)
EDIFY - Some street-cred if you build up (street-crED IF You)
FILM - Movie returning in MGM lifestory (mgM LIFestory)
ROAD - Even arrow and street (aRrOw AnD)
CAR - Vehicle primarily costly although roadworthy (Costly Although Roadworthy)
HOPE - Wish ends in triumph - no mishap here (triumpH nO mishaP herE)

Homophone Clue

Homophone clues include elements where the answer sounds like part or all of the wordplay. The keywords for this type of clue include "sounds like", "we hear" or "on the radio". For example, the word WRITE is a homophone for RIGHT and can therefore be indicated by not left, we hear. Some full examples of this include:

IDEA - Thought to look at ruminant, it's said (EYE DEER)
TOLLED - Rang and spoke aloud (TOLD)
THROUGH - Flung, we hear, by way of (THREW)

Allusion Clue

Allusion clues are perhaps the most cryptic of the cryptic clue types. The intention of the author here is to describe the answer whilst hiding the true meaning behind another surface meaning. The concept is not obvious, so it is best to illustrate with an example. Consider the clue Multiple bar slow movement? (3-5). On the face of it, this seems to be a musical reference. However, the actual answer is PUB-CRAWL, indicated by the fact that such an activity involves moving from one bar (pub) to another. It is likely that any such clue will have a question mark or exclamation mark at the end, since the construction may require the solver to think in a non-standard way and/or the whole clue may be a literal description. Further examples of this type of clue include:

MANHATTAN - Apple cocktail? (apple as in Big Apple = New York)
ULSTER - Result of strife here? (reference to problems in Northern Ireland)