An introduction to cryptic crosswords

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The two main types of crosswords are American and cryptic.
American crosswords tend to clue answers directly, maybe using clues such as “Tidy” for neat, or “Curved structure” for arch.
Each cryptic crossword clue is written like a mini word puzzle, and typically consists of three things: A definition (just like a standard American crossword), a wordplay indicator, and wordplay fodder. These last two parts are unique to cryptic crosswords, and work as a set of coded instructions to lead you towards the answer.
Some examples of this are “Scion messed up representations (5)”, to take the letters of Scion, and anagram them to get a word meaning representations, which would be icons. Another example would be “Tests cutback as Max exits (5)”, where you read the fodder backwards, and there’s the word exams hidden using the letters in “a[s Max e]xits”, and exams is a word for tests.
The parenthetical number(s) after the clue indicate how many words there are in the answer and how many letters each word has.
There are many different types of wordplay that cryptic crosswords might use to hide the answer, and each type of wordplay is typically clued by a different type of word. Solvers aren’t expected to know all of the instruction words off by heart, but just to be aware of the general types of words that are associated with each type of clue.


Some examples of the main types of wordplay are below, there are others which are less common:
WordplayWhat it meansTypes of wordsExample wordsExample Clue
AnagramsScramble up the fodder to make a new wordAny word with connotations of creation, destruction, activity, movement, confusion might be an anagram indicator.Active, made up, funny, shambles, wanderingSorties twisted tales (7) -> Stories
ContainersPut some letters or words inside of a wordAny word that suggests ownership, possession, or being placed around another word/letter.About, eating, holding, collected by, withinOr around a paddle (3) -> Oar
DeletionRemove some letters or words from another wordAny word that suggests removing/lacking something.Cut, ignoring, leaving, wanting, withoutNight animals shun ten battens (4) -> Bats
Hidden wordsThe answer is in the clue, often over multiple words.Most container indicators, as well as words referring to things being found within / elements of other words.A bit of, conceals, fragment, within, in, essential toOld vessel discovered in obscure lichen (5) -> Relic
ReversalsLike a hidden word, but backwards.Any word that indicates a backwards motion, or right-to-left/down-to-up motion. Some indicators only word for across or down clues.Back, flipped, recall, inverted, head over heels, from below, lifted, written up, heading WestVegetable may be dug up (3) -> Yam
HomophonesThe answer sounds like the fodderAny word that indicates speech or hearingAloud, called, heard, reportedly, uttered, on the radio, sungHear one victory (3) -> won
Letter deletionRemove the first, last, middle or alternating lettersAny word that has connotations of removing a specific part of a thing. These can be quite varied due to the many different parts of a word you might want to delete from.Bracketed letters are being removed: (T)opless, cut shor(t), (p)eele(d), hear(t)less, r(e)g(u)l(a)r (s)a(c)r(i)f(i)c(e)s, (p)iebaldExecute gutless desperado (2) -> do.
Letter selectionPick the first, last, middle or alternating lettersAny word that has connotations of specifying a certain part of a thing. These can also be quite varied.Bracketed letters are being selected: (F)irst, tai(l), (s)ide(s), he(a)rt, e(v)e(n), (o)d(d), s(tuffin)g, hor(n)tailEven doodad is strange (3) -> odd
Double definitionNo wordplay, two separate definitions in the cluen/aIf you can’t find any indicators, check for a double definition, or just a substitution.Small unit of time (6) -> Minute. “Small” and “unit of time” are both definitions of minute.

More tricks

It is possible for a clue to require multiple steps to get to the answer [e.g. Beheaded king mixed alcoholic drink (3) -> take the first letter off “king” to get “ing”, and anagram it to get “gin”.] It is also possible for the necessary fodder to not be written directly into the clue. [e.g .Hear a victory (3) -> Substitute “a” for “one”, then homophone].
In addition to ‘like-for-like’ substitutions (such as a -> one), there are some letter substitutions that are common for crosswords. Any word that is commonly shortened to a few letters might be written in to stand for these letters. When you start out trying to solve cryptics these might seem arbitrary, but once you start understanding clues they’re easier to follow. Examples include: Compass points (North = N); Countries/states (Australia = Aus, California = Ca); NATO phonetic alphabet (Alfa = A, Quebec = Q); Roman numerals (one = I, ten = X); Chemical symbols (Argon = Ar, Gold = Au); (L)eft and (r)ight; (H)ot and (c)old. Some are a bit of a stretch, for example a ‘0’ looks like an ‘o’, so “zero” and “love” (the term zero points in tennis) can be used to indicate an “o”.


  1. Clues can have deceptive readings, read each word one-by-one!
  2. Remember the definition = start or end.

This article is part of a series of posts designed to teach visitors about crosswords in general as well as some Crosshare specific features. If you have any questions or suggestions for this or other articles please contact us via email or discord.

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