Cryptic crossword clues may seem very confusing at first and make no sense, but there is actually a very logical method to the madness!
Cryptic clues usually include one or more straight definitions (although sometimes it's a bit cryptic!) and a wordplay element to the clue where the answer is formed by building and manipulating the words in the clue, often guided by what are known as indicators which tell you what you need to do. However the surface reading of the clue, which usually has little to do with the answer, can be very misleading and make it difficult to spot cryptic indicators.
There are many types of wordplay that crossword compilers use and we have compiled some lists of cryptic crossword indicators that advise you what you need to do to solve the clue. Compilers like to use misleading or unusual parts of speech to misdirect you, for example: flower for river, or number for anaesthetic. Also they will often use more than one type of wordplay or indicator in a clue! It may be very difficult to deconstruct the clue, but it's always fair!
Sometimes a clue will instruct you to rearrange the letters of words in the clue to give you the answer. This is called an anagram, and can be indicated by any word that suggests movement, construction, destruction, confusion, mixing or any other number of indicators that suggest the letters might not be quite right! They are also known as anagrinds. This has by far the biggest set of possible indicators, with our list holding well over 2,000 words and phrases.
An example of an anagrind being used in a clue might be:
Animal seen in naughty act (3)
Here the definition is animal - like you would find in a straight clue, the word naughty indicates you should rearrange the letters in act (naughty suggests that the letters aren't behaving as they should). "Seen in", which is not necessary but helps improve surface reading, acts as a link (think of it a bit like an equals sign in an equation) between the definition part of the clue and the cryptic wordplay part, giving you the idea that an animal is found (or seen) in rearranging the letters of act. The letters that are being rearranged are sometimes known as anagram fodder or anagrist.
View all Anagram Indicators
The answer to the clue may be hidden in plain sight, right there in front of you! The crossword setter will be kind enough to tell you that the answer is hidden within the text of the clue, but it might not be easy to spot. Hidden word indicators are used to instruct you that the answer is somewhere in the clue, but it is either hidden within a single word or might span across the boundaries of two or more words. Any word(s) that suggest that something is hidden, or contained may be an indicator that the answer is hidden within the clue.
Mouse chaser's partial panic attack (3)
"Partial" indicates that you need to take only some of "panic attack" with the definition being mouse chaser. If you look closely you will see the word cat hidden (paniC ATtack) within the clue.
View all Hidden Word Indicators
This might sound a bit confusing, and you'd be right. Some words have different spellings, but the same pronunciation, e.g. allowed and aloud, which makes for some interesting wordplay. These words are known as homophones (from the Greek for homo- "same" and phone - "voice") As always, in the interest of fairness, the crossword setter will indicate in the clue that the answer sounds like another word.
Cat makes a connection on the phone (4)
The defintion is "cat", and "on the phone" indicates that the answer sounds like (because you speak into a phone) "links", which is a definition for "makes a connection" - and links sounds like lynx.
View all Homophone Indicators
Sometimes you need to find a word and reverse it to give you the answer. These are indicated by reversal indicators. Some indicators are specific for across clues (e.g. from the east) and some only for down clues (e.g. going up).
Big cat is flipping some left over wool (4)
"Big cat" gives the definition for lion, and "some left over wool" or a noil (short fibre left over from combing wool) is flipped (reversed) to give lion.
This clue in itself is ambiguous, because you could also read it as "lion" being flipped to give "noil" as the answer. In the context of a crossword it should be apparent which is correct with the intersecting letters of other clues, but it's not a good clue and either a differing number of letters, the positioning of the indicator or grammatical reading should leave the solver in no doubt which part is the definition and which part is the wordplay. This ambuguity also applies to homophones and is something I've highlighted here as something to avoid if you compile cryptic crosswords.
View all Reversal Indicators
Often, we like to shorten or abbreviate words to save time and space. With units, for example, we might write 10m instead of 10 metres, or we might use shorter forms like min and max for minimum and maximum. Sometimes we might use letters to represent a word or things, like "L" for learner when learning to drive or O for oxygen in chemistry.
Crossword compilers very much take advantage of this and like to really push the limits beyond what you'd expect in normal writing, but knowing these indicators is an essential tool for solving cryptic crosswords. There are several types of wordplay they use including: By example, junction could be "T" as in a T-junction, or a type of, so a bridge player could be N,E,S or W. Sometimes they will play on words, so the end of September, or winter's end could be R, or it could be the shape, so sphere could be an O. Numbers like 50 or 10 are commonly used in their Roman numeral format (L and X). Scientific units are very common and music has several keys and notes that could be indicated.
Setters don't limit themselves to single letters either, and multiple characters or groups of letters can be indicated by certain words or phrases. They will use acronymns and slang, so "sailor" can be AB (able-bodied seaman), TAR (slang) or even RN, SALT, JACK, HAND or OS (ordinary seaman)! There are many, many more that setters have at their disposal.
Post university degree for a large cat (4)
Post (P) university (U) degree (MA) gives you a large cat, in this case a puma.
You can see the letter indicators at play here, post gives you P (as in postscript or PS), U for university, like in UWE (University of the West of England) and a degree (MA for Master of Arts degree) all put together give you the definition of a large cat.
Many clues wil involve adding different parts together but some words are used to link sets of letters or words together by relative position, such as after or before, or on top of (for down clues only).
These container indicators instruct the placing of words or letters inside or outside other words and letters
Letters to be selected from a word, such as first letter, middle letter, or last letter
Similar to selected letters indicators, but you remove them from the word or synonym and use what's left
This is where you change one letter for another
These are where you are indicated to move a letter to a different position, such as shifting a letter to the front or end of a word
Indicate a word that reads the same in reverse
Sometimes you may be indicated to extract alternate letters (even or odd), or prime numbers e.g. 2nd, 3rd and 5th
These words aren't strictly necessary but are often used to help improve the surface reading of the clue. They are usually found connecting the straight and wordplay parts together or between multiple straight definitions and can be summarised by thinking of them as words that could be substituted by words like "equals", "from", "gives" or "given by". While they don't indicate anything in themselves, they can be used to spot the break between definitions and wordplay and sometimes determine which is which. The grammar should always be correct, where the convention is that the definition is given by (or deduced from) the wordplay, and not the other way round - the definition doesn't give the wordplay! The two parts can equal each other however, like two sides of an equation. There should be no redundant words used, however small, within the definition or wordplay parts - so every little "a" or "an" is quite likely to be part of the answer or being acted upon by an indicator!
There is no cryptic or wordplay element here, only multiple definitions of the same word. Sometimes you will see linking words to improve the surface reading such as "and".
These clues often have no straight definition part, but a single definition where you have to think outside the box! A famous one is Jammed Cylinder (5,4), which makes you think of something stuck... but actually gives you the answer SWISS ROLL
The entire clue is the cryptic part using wordplay, and the entire clue is literally the straight definition
Try solving some of these cryptic crossword clues with solutions and explanations!