Tips for Solving Cryptic Crossword Puzzles

Inside Secrets from a Crossword Veteran

This article has been authored by my father-in-law, Krishnamurthy Srinivasa. He has been gracious enough to let me host it on his behalf while he surveys options for hosting his own web site.
-- Anand Natrajan, anand@anandnatrajan•com
Hello! I have been solving crosswords for over 40 years. Specifically, I enjoyed solving cryptic crosswords that used to appear in The Times of India, one of the most respected news publications in India. Although The Times of India no longer publishes cryptic crosswords daily, Indian enthusiasts can find similar crosswords in The Economic Times and The Hindu. These crosswords are also published in the London Times.

Over the years I have taught my techniques for solving crosswords to several enthusiasts, for example, my daughter, Rashmi Srinivasa. I hope to be able to teach my grand-daughter, Mallige Anand as well. I would like to share some of these techniques with you as well. Hopefully these techniques will help you enjoy solving cryptic crosswords and give a much-needed fillip to this dying art. After you read the techniques below, try your hand at some of the example clues at the bottom of the page.

Tips & Tricks

  1. Synonyms: Most cryptic clues involve knowing the synonyms of some word that is part of the clue. Often the synonym is on the secondary or tertiary meaning of the word in the clue, not the primary meaning. For example, a clue may contain the word "contract". The wording of the clue may suggest a synonym for the meaning of "contract" as in "reduce in size". However, the real answer may require a synonym for "contract" that means "acquire, catch or get". Solving such clues may require taking into account multiple meanings of words and then thinking of synonyms. Another technique involving synonyms involves using Roman numerals for numbers mentioned in the clue. For example, if the number "six" is mentioned in the clue, it could be that the answer has the letters "VI" in it. Non-specific numbers, such as "many" or "large number" could hint to the Roman numerals "C", "D" or "M".

  2. Abbreviations: Cryptic clues sometimes involve knowing about well-known abbreviations. Typically, if a clue contains certain words, you must understand the oblique reference to certain institutions or organisations, and use abbreviations for those institutions. The letters in that abbreviation may be part of the answer to the clue.
    Abbreviation Full Form Words that suggest this abbreviation
    RA Royal Academy artist, painter
    RE Royal Engineers engineer, sapper
    AB Able-Bodied sailor, seaman, tar
    ER Elizabeth Regina queen
    Re Regarding about
    C, CA Circa around

  3. Letter Manipulations: One particularly tricky technique in solving cryptic crosswords in inserting letters within the answer to part of the clue. For example, suppose the answer to some clue is "contract". The clue may be worded such that most of the clue suggests the answer is "contact", but the rest of the clue suggests inserting the letter 'r' somewhere in the middle. This technique is tricky because the answer is more than one step removed from the clue. First, you have to speculate that this technique may be involved. Look for giveaway words like "around" or "dance"; they suggest that some letters must be inserted. Giveaways like "without" or "loses" suggest that some letters must be removed. Next, you have to identify the part of the clue for which the "sub-answer" is a word. Next, you must find synonyms for that part to get the "sub-answer". Next, you must take the rest of the clue and find out the letters to insert/remove. Finally, you must insert/remove the letters in/from the correct place in the "sub-answer" to get the final answer. Phew. Good luck.

  4. Anagrams: Anagrams are a relatively easy technique, provided you can find the words that constitute the anagram. Look for helper phrases in the clue that suggest you must use this technique. For example, if the clue has giveaways like "mix", "break", "new", "mad", "arrange" or "around", you could try making anagrams of the words near them. Words like "back" and "returning" are even more specific giveaways; try reading the letters of a nearby word backwards.

  5. Homophones: Homophones are another fairly easy technique, once you recognise them. Here, the puzzle-setter wants you to guess a word or part of the word that sounds like the final answer. For example, the puzzle-setter may clue you to "sail" and then hint that you must find a homophone, e.g., "sale", that could be the final answer. Helper phrases like "sounds like" and "we hear" in the clue suggest trying this technique.

  6. Hidden Answers: This technique is really easy... provided you can spot it. Here, the puzzle-setter gives you the answer to the clue within the clue itself. The letters that constitute the answer will appear, in exact order, but split across two or more words within the clue. Look for such clues when the answer has few characters; obviously, it is harder to embed answers that have many letters. Another hint to use this technique is when some of the words in the clue seem to have no particular obvious use or relation to what you suspect is the final answer.

  7. Literary References: The Bible is a favourite hunting ground for puzzle-setters wishing to include literary references in their clues. Other popular authors are Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde.
    Answer Reference Words that suggest this reference
    Abel, Cain Bible brother
    Esau Bible twin, Jacob's twin
    mad, hatter Alice in Wonderland hatter, mad

  8. Composite Clues: Sometimes, multiple techniques may have to be invoked in order to arrive at the final answer. For example, letter manipulations often require using abbreviations for the letters to be inserted or removed. Rarely, in extraordinarily difficult crosswords, two tough techniques will be used together, e.g., anagram of a synonym.

Solving cryptic crosswords is an art, but it is an art that can be learnt. Studying the answers from previous crosswords can provide insights into the mind of the creator of the crossword. Each puzzle-setter has his/her own style, and it may take a while getting used to them. Of course, acquiring a good vocabulary is always useful.

Practice Session

All right, now that you are armed with all of these techniques, try your skill with the examples below. Each of these examples is from a real crossword that I have solved. Select one clue from the drop-down list and try to solve the answer in the last box. If you need help, click on "Hint 1" or "Hint 2" or "Give up?".

Happy solving!


Copyright © Krishnamurthy Srinivasa, ksrini2@yahoo•com.