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A Logical Approach to Solving Cryptic Crosswords

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Intuitive thinkers are drawn to cryptic crosswords. They're particularly adept at solving them. But, if you ask them how to solve a cryptic, one answer you'll get is "Just look at the clue until a solution pops up." This is my husband's advice and it works for him.

He'll look at "Tender engagement (3)" for few seconds and say "gig." As an avid sailor, a "tender" is a boat that services a yacht and some tenders are gigs. Then he'll refer to the clue, just to confirm his guess. In this case a "gig" is also a musician's job or "engagement."

Logical thinkers sometimes avoid cryptics because at first glance they make no sense. How does "down" relate to "Blue feather (4)" for instance? It does if you know that cryptic clues are composed of two parts. In this case, to be blue is to be down and one kind of feather is down.

The traditional approach to teaching people to solve cryptics is to give a new solver a list of the kinds of cryptic clues with examples. The two clues above are "double meanings," This approach does work in that it's the way most of us did learn to solve cryptics. But it's hard work and best done with an experienced solver on hand as a coach.

What's needed is a short, simple instruction that can allow a new solver to solve a cryptic clue without further help.

Before I go any further, I must admit that some compilers who either grew up with British cryptics or who simply admire them, are prone tp create the occasional clue that doesn't follow the rules. For these clues you need an intuitive leap or access to the answers.

A logical approach:

The main thing a new solver needs to know is there are two definitions of the answer in a cryptic clue and these two definitions are physically separate. You could draw a vertical line between them.

Also, one (or both) of the definitions is a straight definition like you'd find in any crossword. It can be direct - "barge = a boat" - or indirect - "no bull = steer."

The second definition could either be another straight definition or a set of instructions. You might be told to anagram a word: a "new car" could be "arc" or "crazy night duel" might be "unlighted." You might be asked to put one word inside or around another word or to turn it backwards. A word in the clue might sound like the answer or the actual answer might be written out inside the clue.

Since the definitions are physically separate, you can divide them with a vertical line. Sometimes there's a joining word - of, in, from, that, and, to - at the intersection which can be ignored.

"Man eating apple core in tree (5)" is a clue with a 5 letter answer.

First: look for a possible straight definition:

  1. Man / eating apple core in tree (5)

  2. Man eating / apple core in tree (5)

  3. Man eating apple / core in tree (5)

  4. Man eating apple core (in) / tree (5)

1. the straight definition would be "man"

2. neither possibility looks like a straight definition

3. "core in tree" might be "heartwood" but I can't think of a 5 letter synonym

4. the straight definition would be "tree"

Second: look for instructions

"Eating" might mean one word is put inside another. "Core" might mean use only the inside of a word. "In" might mean one word inside another.

  1. word meaning man = word for eating + (ap)p(le) inside word for tree

  2. unlikely

  3. word meaning core in tree = word for man around word for apple

  4. word meaning tree = word for man around (ap)p(le)

1. and 3. are unlikely to produce a 5 letter answer.

4. you're looking for a 4-letter word meaning man around P (the middle or core letter of apple.) the answer is the name of a tree: "male around (ap)p(le) = maple"

I'm sure you figured this out more quickly than it took me to type it.

Here's another one:

  1. Liqueur (that) / melts the basin (8)

  2. Liqueur that melts / the basin (8)

  3. Liqueur that melts the / basin (8)

The straight definition is probably "liqueur " or "basin." ""Melts" could indicate an anagram where you "melt" the letters into another word. Look for an 8 letter word or phrase to anagram. If you anagram "the basin" you get "absinthe" which is a "liqueur."

Let's try it again:

  1. Place / (to) keep stock and unlimited money, without exception (3,4)

  2. Place to keep / stock and unlimited money, without exception (3,4)

  3. Place to keep stock / (and) unlimited money, without exception (3,4)

  4. Place to keep stock and unlimited / money, without exception (3,4)

  5. Place to keep stock and unlimited money, / without exception (3,4)

  6. Place to keep stock and unlimited money, without /exception (3,4)

I'm going to go with 3. "place to keep stock" or 5. "without exception" or 6. "exception as the straight definition.

"unlimited" looks like an instruction to remove the outside letters of "money" to get "one."

The answer is a 2 word phrase composed of 3 letters plus 4 letters.

Of the 3 possibilities, 5. looks like the one most likely to produce the answer: "barn (a place to keep stock) + ONE (unlimited money) = bar none (without exception)

*** FREE ***

To further practice what you've learned here, hover your cursor over About Caroline at the top of the page and click on Contact. Ask for mini-puzzles and I'll send you, FREE, a pdf of four 9x9 mini-puzzles to download and practice on.

On the Shop Puzzle Collections page under How-To Books, you can order my Introduction to Cryptics which includes 24 mini-puzzles, $14 for a pdf.

You can also order on of the 60 puzzle collections (15x15) , only $8.00 for a pdf which is a real bargain. Or, if you order one of the Vintage collections, it's 65 pdf puzzles for $9.00

In the next blog, I'll discuss how you can create your own cryptic clues.

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