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Cryptic Crossword

How to Solve a Cryptic Crossword

created on by  in Printable word games, Word trivia

Crosswords can be great fun. Whether searching for synonyms or testing your general knowledge, the simple crossword is an easily accessible activity that most people can understand and enjoy on its own merits.

But what about the cryptic crossword? Despite appearances to the contrary, this is a different kind of puzzle entirely.

Cryptic Crossword – A different kind of puzzle

And yet it all looks so familiar. The answers fit into a grid in the same way as a conventional crossword. The clues themselves often seem straight forward enough. Its only when you come to try and find solutions to the clues that the problems become apparent. All of a sudden, the crossword compiler seems to be speaking a different language. And this is all because, in a cryptic crossword there are a number of unwritten rules, keys that need to be known and used in order to unlock each answer, providing that you understand them and know how to use them.

The Hidden Rules of Cryptic Crosswords

This article will show you how to interpret the clues in a cryptic crossword, how to apply the hidden rules that govern the workings of such a puzzle and hopefully enable you to have a go at completing your very first cryptic crossword.


The first thing to appreciate about cryptic crosswords is that a synonym for the actual answer is still there, hidden inside the clue usually at the start or end of the sentence. Often it won’t be a large part of the clue, it may only be a short phrase or just one word, but it will be there. For example, in the clue “Order spare tea on its own (8)” the answer is “Separate” meaning “on its own” whereas “(8)” is signaling an 8-letters word. It is important therefore to try and scan each clue to see if you can find the section that means the same as the answer.


As for the rest of the cryptic clue, this is usually the part that explains how the letters are structured in the answer. This can be done in a variety of ways, but the easiest one to spot is an anagram. That’s why it appears as number one in this list of top ten hints for solving a cryptic crossword.


In the clue above “Order spare tea” is telling you to put the letters to the phrase “spare tea” in a new order. The answer “separate” is an anagram of “spare tea”.

The best piece of advice is to try to find the anagrams first. These will often be the longer answers and will be signified by a word or phrase meaning “mix up” or “break” or “re-order”. For example, in the clue “Hold back first of rabble in tears when drunk (8)”, the word “drunk” means that letters are mixed up (ie an anagram). Another trick is being employed by the compiler here. “First of rabble” means the letter R (the first letter of the word rabble). So “first of rabble in tears when drunk” gives us an anagram of the eight letters R,I,N,T,E,A,R,S. “Hold back” is the part of the clue that tells us what the answer means. See if you can come up with the solution. By using our anagram solver this shouldn’t be a problem. In any way you will find the answer at the end of the article.


Another way that the clues can hint at the structure of the answer is by placing one word inside another. In this case watch out for words meaning “inside” or “around”. The smaller words put together in this way to create a larger word will often be synonyms of words or phrases in the clue, thus adding a further layer of complexity. For example, if the answer to a clue is “Staging”, this could be formed by Sing containing Tag. A possible cryptic clue for this answer might therefore be “Planning to perform a musical item by including an epithet”. The first word “planning” is the whole answer, “perform a musical item” = Sing, while “an epithet” = Tag.

Alternatively, words could be placed next to each other, as in Support (Port following Sup).  A possible clue is “Left after drink to encourage”. See if you can understand why.

By being able to explain to yourself why answers like this fit, you will be able to get inside the head of the compiler and deconstruct his clues.


Sometimes the actual answer is contained literally in the clue. For example, “The boys had owned the dark image contained within. (6)”. Here, the hidden word is underlined. The answer to the clue is therefore “Shadow”. “Contained within” is the hint that you might be looking for a hidden word.


If the clue contains a word meaning “backwards” or “reverse”, it could mean that part or all of the answer has another word or words in it that go backwards. This can sometimes be combined with a hidden word.


Some clues are literally two meanings for the same word. For example: “Yellow-green colour of the tree (5)”. Answer = “Olive”


Certain phrases in cryptic crosswords can indicate certain letters. Here is a list of some common ones used in English crosswords (these can often be culturally referenced). You will probably come across many more, as you become more practised at doing cryptic crosswords. Please send us your codebook by the feedback form at the end of the article.

Some often used Codes

Old boy = OB

Graduate = BA

Drug = E

Point = N, S, E or W (as in point of a compass)

European = E

Current = AC or DC or I

Old or Circle or Ring = O

Various elements can be given by their chemical symbol (eg Potassium = K)

These will vary widely depending on the compiler and his idiosyncrasies, but this short list has hopefully given you the general idea.


Sometimes you just have to think outside the box. A large part of the clue in this category can often be a pun or play-on-words. It would be pointless to give examples here as each one will be different to the next.


Words such as “sound” or “hear” appearing in a clue can sometimes indicate that part or all of the answer is a word that sounds like another word but is spelt differently (eg Stayed and Staid). A possible clue for this answer might be “Remained steady, I hear (5)”.


These words can mean that a certain number of letters from one word may appear in the final answer.


Phrases such as “heads off” or “tails off” can indicate that the first or last letter of a word is missing. The overall answer may be constructed from such a curtailed word along with other bits.
So there you have it. Start out by trying to find the word or phrase in each clue that gives the meaning of the answer. Then look out for each of the above techniques, bearing in mind that sometimes they may be combined in the same clue and you will be well on the way to cracking your first cryptic crossword.

Answer for #1:
By the way, the answer to the clue at the end of hint number 1 is “Restrain”

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  • Newspaper with a Cryptic Crossword: © leevancleef -