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Clearing the bar | The Nation

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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Clearing the bar

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle–solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.]

Cryptic crosswords come in two flavors: black-square diagrams (also known as block diagrams), which are what we use in The Nation almost exclusively, and bar diagrams. In the latter format, words are bounded by heavy bars between the squares rather than black squares, which makes for a much denser packing of words. So far, we have only created two bar diagrams for The Nation: Puzzle 3218 and Puzzle 3263. We don’t intend to do this very often, but a little variety in the grid format is a good thing—and in our previous incarnations we specialized almost exclusively in constructing and editing bar-diagram puzzles.

The most noticeable difference between bar and black-square puzzles is the amount of “checking.” In a black-square diagram, about half the letters in each word also belong to a word running in the perpendicular direction. In the United States, most constructors (including us) consider 50 percent to be an absolute minimum for checked letters. In a bar diagram, by contrast, the general rule is that about one-third of the letters in each word should be unchecked. While this does not approach the 100 percent checking required in US-style puzzles, it does make for more constrained puzzles.

More checking is helpful for the solver, because it means more help in solving tough clues. In fact, bar diagrams often include some further complications besides the clues themselves. Some entries may be unclued, for instance, or a transformation may need to be applied to some words before entering them into the diagram. Moreover, in British bar-diagram cryptics, there is no assumption that entries need to be common words.

Another feature of many British bar-diagram cryptics is that even the clues may be tampered with, for example by having extraneous letters inserted. (Typically, those letters spell out a relevant message.) We were among the setters who introduced this practice in The Enigma (the publication of the National Puzzlers’ League), making it the home of some of the toughest cryptics in the United States. Many are available in a book we edited, which can be downloaded for free from the NPL website. You can also find bar-diagram puzzles monthly in The Wall Street Journal (by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon) and Harper’s (by Richard Maltby).

Obscure words, transformations between clue answer and diagram entry, mangled clues…you can see why increased checking is needed! But all this increased complexity is worth it: In addition to the usual satisfaction of solving a cryptic, bar-diagram cryptics often have a final smile-inducing thematic punch line.

Do you solve bar-diagram cryptics? Please share your experiences here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments,) please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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