The puzzles in The Nation are part of a long tradition known as cryptic crosswords, which use a style of clueing more dependent on wit and wordplay than on pure knowledge. These clues can seem daunting at first glance, but the underlying principles are fairly simple. This article offers a basic guide to solving cryptics.
Every cryptic clue appears to be a (somewhat) sensible phrase or sentence. In reality, however, it has two separate parts. One is a definition, like those in a standard crossword puzzle; the other part uses some form of wordplay to steer you to the intended answer. These two parts provide independent indications of the same answer. Either part may come first in the clue. Sometimes a word or two, suggesting how the two parts work together, may come in between; alternatively, the definition and wordplay may simply occur side by side. In any case, they will not generally overlap or intermingle.
This means that every clue either begins or ends with a definition of the answer, but it’s up to you to find the break between the definition and the wordplay. We will try to challenge you with clues whose surface meaning puts you off the scent—for example, with a clue whose parts split in the middle of a common two-word phrase, or by seeming to use a word as a verb that is really meant as a noun. We may also use punctuation in whatever manner seems most likely to deceive, so remember to ignore punctuation in clues. In fact, once in a while, we may even omit a space, for example writing “fishtail” where we really mean “fish tail.”
In each puzzle, we hope to have clues with a wide range of difficulty, and answers from a wide variety of sources extending from everyday language to any branch of human knowledge. Our primary goal is to entertain you, but we also hope to expand your vocabulary and perhaps get you to look at the English language a little differently. And although the rules outlined here will almost always be in force, we reserve the right to tweak, bend or even break them as the antic muse dictates.
Here is a tour of the common types of wordplay, along with hints on how to spot them. The number in parentheses following a clue tells you how many letters are in the clue answer. In case you want to read about the different types of clues in more detail, we will link to relevant posts on Word Salad, our cryptic crossword blog at TheNation.com.
Probably the most common cryptic clueing technique is to form the answer by rearranging the letters in a word or group of words as they appear in the clue—making, for instance, PATERNAL or PARENTAL from PRENATAL. Many words can signal an anagram: among them are anything suggesting disorderly, misshapen, drunk, crazy, or simply bad or wrong—also repaired, fixed, shuffled, in motion, and so on. For example:
Inebriated pirates travel about (7)
The wordplay, “inebriated pirates”, tells you to find an anagram of PIRATES that means “travel about.” The answer is TRAIPSE. “Inebriated” in this case is the anagram indicator, and “pirates” is the anagram fodder.