Cryptic crosswords may look completely impenetrable to beginners, but anyone can learn to solve them. Here you’ll find a quick introduction to the most common types of clue and how they work. After reading this, you’ll have all you need to start tackling cryptic crosswords. They may be tricky at first, but with some patience and persistence, you’ll soon get the hang of it.
New Scientist’s cryptic crosswords follow the same rules as those in other UK publications. Many of our clues and answers will also involve some scientific general knowledge, so it helps if you’re a regular reader of New Scientist or other popular science material, but you don’t need a degree or specialist knowledge to get most of the answers. If the answer is an obscure word, the setter will usually make the wordplay relatively straightforward, so it is possible to work out the answer even if you don’t know the word. And feel free to look things up – the only person who gets to decide what counts as cheating is you!
How cryptic clues work
Part of the clue will be a definition of the answer or tell you its meaning in a more or less straight fashion. This part will either be at the beginning or the end of the clue. The rest of the clue will be a form of wordplay that will guide you to the answer in a more roundabout fashion. For example:
It is common for a word in the clue to be replaced by an abbreviation in the answer, so “energy” here means E, as in E=mc2. Putting E into Nice, the name of a French city, makes NIECE, which is also given by the definition “relative”.
When you read a clue, it is usually best to start by guessing which part is the definition and which part asks you to do a bit of wordplay. You’ll get better at this with practice, but an easy way to tell the difference is by looking for wordplay indicators – words or phrases that are a sure sign something cryptic is going on. In the examples below, the clues involve only one type of wordplay, but often you’ll find that clues combine more than one type.
Types of wordplay
Some letters or words in the clue have to be rearranged to form the answer. Anagrams may be indicated by words like bad or broken, or words relating to change or movement. Emphasis added below to the anagram indicator words.
The answer is hidden somewhere in the clue. This may be indicated by a word like hidden, or a word like some or part. Again, the indicator word has been emphasised below.
The clue refers to a word that sounds like the word in the answer. This may be indicated by words like reported, heard or in a podcast.
If the answer has a double meaning, the clue might give you two different definitions. If the clue is only two words, there is a good chance it is a double definition. Very occasionally, you might see a clue that is a triple definition.
Cheese particle (5) QUARK
American who feels a sudden pull? (6) YANKEE (The question mark indicates that this isn’t a normal use of the word yankee, but a contrived one.)
The answer is broken up into two or more pieces and a clue is given for each piece. The pieces may be clued in order, or the clue may use words like before or after to tell you which pieces go where.
The clue might refer to a longer word or phrase, part of which must be deleted to get the answer. The deletion may be signified by removed, lost, without, headless if the first letter is deleted, endless if the last letter is deleted, heartless if the middle letter or letters are deleted and so on.
Encourage doctor to lose her head (4,2) URGE ON (surgeon without the first letter)
Significant to lose wife when past retirement age (6) EIGHTY (weighty with the letter w for wife removed)
The clue refers to a word or words that spell out the answer backwards. This may be indicated by back, turning, about and so on. If the word is the answer to a Down clue, a reversal may be indicated by up or rising etc.
The answer is broken up into two parts, one inside the other. The clue may use words like in, inside, around, eating, covering, absorbing and so on.
The first letters or last letters of words in the clue spell out the answer. First letters could be indicated by origins, leaders, heads, initially, at first etc. Last letters could be indicated by lastly, endings etc.
Take alternate letters from words in the clue to get the answer. This may be indicated by regularly, alternatively, oddly or evenly or a similar phrase.
A spoonerism is usually a two-word phrase in which the sounds at the start of each word have been swapped. This type of clue is less common and would always mention Spooner.
Wordplay = definition
Occasionally, rather than being split into wordplay and definition, the entire clue functions as both a definition and a form of wordplay. In the example below, “violently” signifies an anagram of “angered”, but “violently angered” also works as a definition of the answer.
Violently angered! (7) ENRAGED
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