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What's a Clue For? | The Nation

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

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What's a Clue For?

In a previous blog post, we floated some unorthodox suggestions about ways to construct a cryptic clue, playing off ideas from Peter Biddlecombe, the cryptic crossword editor at the Sunday Times (in London). One of those involved using a clue’s syntax to soften up the common requirement that the definition appear at the beginning or the end of the clue.

To clue INSANE, for instance, instead of the traditional:
   Mix sienna to get mad (6)
we could just as easily write:
   One can get mad when mixing sienna (6)
The underlying structure of the clue is nearly identical in both versions. The first is an instruction to the solver and the second a quasi-hypothetical statement about how a solver could go about solving, but the difference is minor. The key point is that, without going very far from traditional syntax, the second clue commits the near-heresy of placing the definition in the middle of the clue.

One correspondent raised an objection. “The clue is supposed to be a definition,” he wrote, “or, in cryptic puzzles, a mashup of direct and encrypted definitions. This sentence would seem to define ‘one.’ Grammatically, it is not asking for any other def.”

Well, yes and no. If you accept the premise that a clue is “supposed to be” a definition, then he’s right that the second version of the clue is unsound. But that’s a little like saying that a poem is “supposed to be” a series of rhyming lines in a regularly recurring meter. Where does that “supposed to be” come from?

Just like a poem, a cryptic crossword is built in accordance with a system of generally accepted conventions, which lend it structure and coherence. Those conventions are strong enough to make it possible to teach beginners how to solve cryptics, just as it’s possible to teach first-year literature students how to read and understand a Shakespearean sonnet. But writing sonnets isn’t the only way to write a poem.

We’d propose a broader definition of what a crossword clue is “supposed to be”: a path by which a solver is led to the answer. That doesn’t mean that conventions—the duality of definition and wordplay, the use of standard tools like anagrams and reversals, and so on—aren’t important. On the contrary, those are the conventions that make a cryptic crossword a cryptic crossword rather than something else.

They are the guidelines for making sure that the path to the solution is clear and unambiguous, but they are no more than guidelines. Puzzle constructors can be true to the spirit of cryptic clueing while remaining open to unorthodox or innovative interpretations. A path to the answer, possibly including unexpected twists and turns—surely that’s what a clue is “supposed to be.”

What are your thoughts about the conventions of clueing? Please share 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.

And here are 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.

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