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Grammatical Strictures | The Nation

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

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Grammatical Strictures

It’s a long-standing principle that a cryptic clue has to read grammatically, both on the surface and at the cryptic level. But beneath that general rubric lie a number of different cases that are worth keeping separate. Here is a look at the range of grammatical structures a cryptic clue can take.

In the simplest form, a cryptic clue is a phrase that simply juxtaposes the definition and wordplay indicators. A connector such as “and” or “with” can smooth the surface, but it doesn’t change the underlying grammatical form. For example:
   MANDATE  Require a bromantic tête-à-tête? (7)
   TAPIOCA  Bizarrely, I coat Pa with pudding (7)

A clue can also be a phrase that implies a process for arriving at a definition from the wordplay (never vice versa); typically, this involves doing something “for” (i.e., to get) the final answer, or deriving the answer “from” the wordplay:
   HEAPS  Difficult phase for many (5)
   HUBBUB  Turmoil from the center, pal (6)

Just as often, though, a clue’s underlying cryptic syntax involves a full sentence rather than a single phrase. The most common types are either statements of fact:
   SIDE  President has coleslaw, for instance (4)
   SERPENT  A snake is a lousy present (7)
or instructions to the solver in the imperative:
   EDGE  Prune front of bush at property line, to get outside limit (4)

The underlying syntax can also be a hybrid, for example an imperative statement for the wordplay juxtaposed with a definition:
   PEANUTS  Engineer antes up payment “in the high two figures” (7)

There are other possibilities as well, and this is where it gets tricky and interesting: the surface of a clue has its own grammar and syntax, and often these will be at odds with that of the cryptic reading. In those situations, both the constructor and the solver need to be on their toes.

One of the most common techniques for combining a clue’s surface sense and its underlying syntax, for example, is the apostrophe-s dodge. This is when an apostrophe-s is used as a possessive on the surface of a clue, but a substitute for “is” at the cryptic level. For example:
   VOTER  Elector’s trove relocated (5)
   PLOY  Originally, Paulette and Myrna’s trick (4)

One of the most common pitfalls we run into is losing sight of an implied “is” that prevents us from using wordplay that is also a full sentence. This hypothetical, clue, for instance, would be wrong:
   CARIB  Islander’s taxi circumvents Rhode Island (5)
Once you expand the apostrophe-s to “is,” the cryptic syntax is now a sentence with too many main verbs:
   Islander is taxi circumvents Rhode Island (5)
The solution is to change one of the verbs to a participle:
   CARIB   Islander’s taxi circumventing Rhode Island (5)

We’ll have more to say about clue syntax and grammar in a future post.

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