How to Solve 'The Times' Crossword
Created | Updated Jun 30, 2009
The stated intention of The Times crossword editor is to produce puzzles that any moderately well-educated person with a love of language and problem-solving can complete without recourse to reference books. Unfortunately for most of us, the definition of 'moderately well-educated' is a moot point! Neophytes1 shouldn't be put off, though, because solving the crossword is very rewarding; there is a common love of words and word association between compilers and solvers, which means that solving the crossword is like sharing a clever new trick with a group of friends.
The Times Crossword entry tells us that solving the crossword is just a case of learning the clues, but the real test is learning how to use the clues. Some clues are repeated, but generally they are original:
Broadcaster heard in island (4)2
However, many people are unaware that the clues usually fall into certain set categories, which are 'signposted' by words in the clue. This entry will attempt to explain the types of clue and illustrate some of the signposts.
Many of the techniques will apply equally to other cryptic crosswords in British newspapers, such as The Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times; but each crossword has a slightly different style. All of the examples presented here are from The Times, unless otherwise stated. The Times also publishes a Jumbo Weekend crossword on Saturdays. The techniques for solving these are very similar, but the grids tend to consist of more obscure words (harder) and more compound expressions (easier).
Most people do feel the need of a dictionary when solving a crossword. The Times shies away from recommending a single specific one; but The Collins English Dictionary is particularly good for proper nouns, while The Oxford English Dictionary is widely regarded as the ultimate source for definitions.
The best way to get started with any cryptic crossword is to study previous grids and analyse the answers. This will help to generate a list of the particular signposts used by that crossword. If you read some previous clues and answers and find yourself saying 'of course', then you will probably be hooked!
Things to Remember
The basic structure of a cryptic crossword clue is that it contains two parts. Each is a clue to the answer. One is generally a straight definition and one is a cryptic definition. In this sense, a cryptic clue may be seen as more generous than a simple clue (where 'Bird (5)' could be EAGLE or EIDER, but 'Sound of mountain bird (5)' can only be EIDER3). In some cases, both parts will be straight:
Sometimes, there is only one part to the clue. In these cases, the clue can be read as a straight definition and as a cryptic one. Beginners find these daunting, but to the experienced solver, they are the apotheosis of the compiler's art and are admired for their elegance.
There will not normally be more than four or five straight anagrams, one or two extraction type and one straight pun. That is because these clues are regarded as too easy. But there may well be additional anagrams which rely on construction or a play on words to make them more complex.
Each clue must have a surface meaning: a plausible plain language interpretation. Do not be fooled into thinking this has anything to do with the answer. A 'nice word' might just as easily mean 'a word from Nice', hence 'French'. Here is a classic piece of misdirection:
In the same way, ignore all punctuation. The punctuation is there to make the crossword clue read like a real sentence or expression: it has no relevance to the answer.
Turkish seat (7)4
One may have got lineages sorted out (11)5
Player getting six, duck, then fifty batting is test opener (9) 6
She took gold, keeping mum (5) 7
The Empty Grid
When confronted by a fresh crossword, the inexperienced solver can be thrown into a panic. All those empty spaces. Where to start? Most crosswords contain one or two really easy clues. All you have to do is spot them!
Look for obvious anagrams (see guidelines below). This depends on whether you are any good at solving anagrams, but they are generally easier since you have all the letters.
Look for compound words or phrases. The average length of a light8 on a 15x15 grid is 7 or 8. The English language contains thousands of words with 7 or 8 letters. However, if the light is actually two words (say 5,3), then there are far fewer words available and there is the added bonus that they must form a viable expression.
Look for short answers of 3, 4, or 5 letters. Again, there are generally fewer words which can fit and it is much easier to know (without counting) that a word contains the right number of letters.
Look for obscure words or proper nouns. These normally (not always) indicate an anagram, construction, or extraction type; and you can be certain that the obscure word plays a key part in supplying letters to the answer. The trick is to ask yourself why the compiler used that particular word. The clue must also contain a signpost; but sometimes these are quite tenuous, especially if the compiler thinks he has given too much away.
Types of Clue
Although this is a list of specific types of clues, the majority of actual clues are a combination of types. This isn't as difficult as it seems, because of the use of signposts. Typical signposts are listed under each type, but notice that some signposts can be used for more than one type. Also, compilers sometimes deliberately stack a clue with signposts, and it comes as a shock to discover that one of them is actually the straight definition!
In an anagram, the letters of one word, or words, are re-arranged to form another word or words:
Wet yarn I entangled (5)9
It is impossible to give a complete list of signpost words, but it should be clear that the sense of the word will somehow mean to change, disrupt, or arrange. Some less obvious ones are: 'special', excite, 'fashion', 'perhaps', 'broadcast', 'at sea' (regarded as quite corny now) and 'make' (sometimes with 'characters of/in').
The use of proper nouns, place names, and really obscure words is often an indication that the clue contains an anagram.
Solving anagrams is a matter of practice, technique and vocabulary. Don't forget that you should have a straight definition in the clue to help you. Many people write out the letters differently: perhaps separating vowels and consonants, or writing them in a circle, or just in a random order.
A word in the clue indicates that something about the answer is given in reverse order. This might be an extraction or construction type clue (an example is given in construction) or, rarely, a straight definition:
Drank up the store (5)10
Signposts include 'over', 'back' (only used in across clues), 'up' (only used in down clues). Note that other crosswords are not usually as choosy about where these signposts are used.
Here, the answer is made up of letters read directly from the clue:
Emperor appearing somewhat enervated (5)11
The phrase 'appearing somewhat' signposts the type of clue. Other signposts are 'from' and 'seen in'. Sometimes, just the word 'in' is used.
Note that the word may span spaces and punctuation; and, again, the use of proper nouns, place names, and really obscure words is often an indication that the clue is an extraction.
Puns and Lateral Thinking
The boundaries between these two types can be a little blurred. A straight pun may be considered where a simple homophone12 is indicated. These are considered so easy that the homophone is normally clued separately, rather than being put directly in the clue:
Fundamental truth college head proclaimed (9)13
In this case, the positioning of the signpost is unambiguous, but sometimes it is necessary to wait for a linked clue to work out which homophone should be entered in the grid.
Typical signposts are 'heard', 'sounds', and 'say'.
For a classic piece of lateral thinking, consider this:
Furnishing list of special events? (10,5)14
One of the most famous crossword clues of all time falls into this category:
In these clues, a specific instance of something is used rather than the generic word. This normally means that the generic word appears in the answer, or the compiler thought it was just too easy if the generic were given in the clue (perhaps seeing the generic written out gives the whole game away):
Piece of equipment I can change inside cooker, say (9)16
Signpost: say, for example.
As before, the use of proper nouns and place names may indicate an 'example given'.
This is a general term, covering Addition, Enclosure, Omission and Substitution. The common feature is that the answer is made up from separate words or parts of words, which are clued individually. The key to understanding this type of clue is that the answer is made up like an algebraic expression. By the time you've read the next sections, you should be able to solve this:
Miser gives nothing back to female, having no money around (9)17
As well as the more complicated cases described below, answers may be constructed from initial letters ('initial', 'start of', 'first'), last letters ('last', 'final'), 'odd' or 'even' letters (but note that 'odd' can also indicate an anagram). In one extreme case, a word was clued with 'penultimate' and, sure enough, the answer was made up of the second from last letters of the other words in the clue.
Watch out for 'on the contrary' or 'quite the opposite', which normally indicate that one of the signposts or the word order of the clue is misleading:
With it, shot goes into goal? On the contrary (6)18
The simplest algebraic operation is addition. This doesn't really need a signpost, but they are sometimes included. Compare:
Some unspecified area adjoining US city (3)19
Note: pay attention to gloss (7)20
In this type of algebraic clue, one word or words enclose another word or words:
Ploughmen without time for books (9)21
Typical signposts are: 'without' (slightly archaic, as in 'stands without'), 'about' (which can also indicate reversal), 'around', and 'outside'.
Another common form of construction is where a letter or letters are omitted or changed in one of the clued words:
Using fingers, like 50% of Europeans 22
Typical signposts are 'short' (letters omitted from end of word), 'half', 'centre', 'without' or 'less' followed by a letter.
In this type, a letter or letters are changed in one of the clued words:
Nothing Henry swapped for a sweet (6)23
There is no reason why the number of letters being inserted must be the same as the number being removed. Also, either set may be clued more cryptically.
Favourite sources of abbreviations include:
- Books of the bible: eg IS or ISA (Isaiah), MIC (Micah)
- Bridge players: so, 'partners' might be NS or EW and 'opponents' might be NE, SW, etc
- Chemical elements: eg AG (silver), AU (gold), CU (copper), W (tungsten)
- Chess notation: B, K, N, Q, R, X
- Directions: L, R or E, N, S, W (and compounds). Also note that the compass points are sometimes described as quarter points or cardinal points
- Military terminology: eg COL, GEN, GI, IC, LT, OC, OR, RA, RE, TA. Often clued as 'soldiers', 'officer' or similar
- Musical notes: either as a single letter (D, E, G) or as a phonetic note (DO, RE, MI)
- Roman numerals: D, I, L, M, V, X. Often clued as 'lots', 'a number' or the specific numeral
- Measurement prefixes: eg K, M.
This table lists some other useful abbreviations and obscure definitions. Abbreviations covered above are not listed again unless there is another meaning of the same word.
|Clue Word||Possible interpretations|
|Bishop||B, RR (Right Reverend)|
|Book||B, VOL, any book of the Bible|
|Drug||ACID, E, H, HORSE, sometimes even a 'real' drug name (eg ASPIRIN)!|
|Friend||ALLY, CHINA (from the rhyming slang), MATE, PAL|
|Italian||IT (from Italian Vermouth in 'Gin and It')|
|Jack||HANGMAN (after a famous executioner, Jack Ketch), J, KETCH (goes particulartly well with 'sailor'), see 'Sailor'|
|King||COLE, ER, GR, K, LEAR, R|
|Lights||LUNGS, WINDOWS, crossword answers (so, may be self-referencing)|
|Line(s)||L, RY (railway), RWY|
|Love||O (from 'love' meaning zero and the shape)|
|New||N, signpost for anagram|
|Peter||SAFE (a well-known brand name has become a slang word for safe)|
|Queen||ER, Q, R|
|Sailor||AB, JACK, TAR|
|See||Remember that it can mean 'BISHOPRIC' (ELY most commonly used), signpost for extraction|
|Short time||M, MIN, MO, S, SEC, T, TIM (ie 'time' shortened)|
|Time||H, HR, M, MIN, S, SEC, T|
|Union||MARRIAGE, NUR, NUT|
|Way||AVE, RD, ST, any direction|
Complete The Times Crossword On-line
You are now ready to complete The Times Crossword on-line (there are printable versions, too).