Decrypting the Cryptic #5: The Basics

“Begin in the middle and work outwards,” said Hope. “Don’t be stuffy.”

–Robin McKinley, Beauty

Beginning in the middle is a bit what I’ve done with Decrypting the Cryptic, since we plunged right into analyzing various conventions used in the wordplay portion of a cryptic clue. However, I presumed a bit of knowledge on your part, which is that a cryptic clue has a straight definition portion and a wordplay portion. This is the basic underpinning of all cryptic clues.

Every cryptic clue can be broken into these two parts. The straight definition clues the word or phrase according to its literal meaning; the wordplay clues the word or phrase in some sort of tricky manner, such as those we’ve talked about in previous posts (and will talk about in more posts to come!). 

You’ll notice I said “parts” and not “halves,” because there is no requirement that the definition and the wordplay be of equal or even similar length. They also don’t have to come in that order, and to make things trickier still, the constructor won’t tell you where the definition ends and the wordplay begins, or vice versa.

I’ll stick to clue types we’ve already discussed (charades, anagrams, containers, and hidden words) to make this explanation easier.

Example #1: A fellow representative (5) (Clue credit: Me, 6/8)

Let’s now break the clue into its two parts: A fellow / representative. Can you guess which half is the definition and which half is the wordplay? Wait for it…wait for it…the wordplay comes first. This is a charades clue in which the letter A is given to you, and “fellow,” which in its surface sense sounds like it means “in the same position as,” actually is being used as a synonym for GENT. So, “fellow” in its noun sense, meaning “gentleman.” Put A and GENT together and you get AGENT, which is a “representative” — so “representative” is the straight definition.

Example #2: Online partner’s advocate (7) (Clue credit: Hypatia, 6/7)

Again, let’s break the clue into its parts: Online partner’s / advocate. Once again, the wordplay comes first: An E-SPOUSE would be an “online partner,” and ESPOUSE means to “advocate.”

These are short clues, but it’s important to note that even if the clue is longer, in American cryptics you will NEVER find one component of the clue in the middle of the other. (I’m told this is not always true of British puzzles. Those tricky Brits!) That is, there are always two discrete components; they won’t mingle or alternate with each other. So if you’re thinking of mixing up some letters from the first word in the clue with some letters in the last word in the clue, for example, get out of that rabbit hole! You probably need to look at the clue in a different way.


Now let’s talk about those little numbers in parentheses next to the clue. They are themselves clues!

In a standard American crossword, unless you’re solving a puzzle intended to be very easy, such as Crosswords With Friends, you won’t be told when the answer is a phrase that has two or more words in it. For example, in Jeff Chen’s NYT puzzle of 3/14/2018, 16-Across, which has eight blank spaces, is clued as “Take dead aim at”; the solver is not told that those eight letters are to be divided into a four and two two-letter words. The answer is the three-word phrase, ZERO IN ON.

In cryptics, perhaps because we constructors try to mess with your head in so many other ways, you WILL be told when it’s time to look for a multi-word phrase. This is done by placing the letter lengths of each word in the phrase in parentheses after the clue, with commas in between. It makes the most sense to look at this in an actual puzzle:

Example #3: Treacherous deceit leading to a drink (4,3) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation #3250; click the “A puzzle from Book 1” link at the link)

If you look at the puzzle grid, you’ll see that this clue (23-Across) points to an answer with seven spaces to fill in. The enumeration of (4,3) means that those seven spaces are to be divided into a four-letter and a three-letter word. The answer is ICED TEA (“drink”); this clue is a combination of an anagram (“Treacherous deceit” means that one is to anagram the letters in DECEIT into ICEDTE) and charades (since “leading to a” simply means “put the letters you already have in front of the letter A”).


Backing up to our explanations of straight definitions: This clue illustrates that, in cryptics, straight definitions need not be as specific as they are in standard American crosswords. In a standard crossword, “Drink” would never be acceptable as a clue for ICED TEA; the two are not interchangeable. (All iced teas are drinks, but not all drinks are iced teas!) At a bare minimum, you would need to say “Certain drink,” and even then it wouldn’t be the most elegant clue. In a cryptic, though, there’s other information helping you get to the answer, and so it’s allowed to have a clue that literally defines the answer without specifically defining the answer.

Hope that helps you understand the basics of cryptic clue anatomy! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter. I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

7 thoughts on “Decrypting the Cryptic #5: The Basics

  1. There’s one remaining clue part that’s been bugging me, and that’s the bit between clue parts. For instance, in “Online partner’s advocate, the apostrophe-s doesn’t belong to either part. It seems to just be there to smooth the transition, so that the clue flows like a normal sentence.
    For whatever reason, possibly mistaken, I thought these conjunctions were no-nos, or at least frowned upon. Is that a real rule, or am I just being picky?


    1. Excellent question! I have seen it used in many clues, and I can’t be sure this is why, but I think it’s because ‘s can be interpreted not only as a possessive, but also as a contraction of “is.” In that case, it’s part of the wordplay portion: you’re literally saying “literal definition” IS “wordplay.”


      1. I don’t have any examples off the top of my head, but I think I’ve seen full words between the clue parts, like “is” or “and” (unless, of course, I’m misremembering).
        Now, I imagine it’s hard enough to write cryptic clues without also trying to make them sound mellifluous without using extra conjunctions, but it seems that a clean join is more elegant.
        But I thought I’d ask you, since you’ve written approximately 20,000 more clues than I have.


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