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 definitions (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.
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.
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
We shall be adding descriptions and lists of other indicators here soon...