Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.
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Many cryptic crossword aficionados take it for granted that the best clues are the ones that don’t look like clues. Ideally, they say, a clue resembles a piece of text that could appear in some other context: prose, poetry or a newspaper headline, as in this post’s title, which could have been lifted from The Onion. (See the end of the post for the solutions.)
But the use of journalistic syntax—headlinese, let’s call it—can bring some grammatical surprises, both on the surface of a clue and in its cryptic workings. Two aspects of this style in particular tend to be noteworthy: the omission of “and” to join items in a list (the technical term is asyndeton), and the omission of definite or indefinite articles.
The omission of “and” (as in the classic tabloid headline “Mom Kills Kids, Self”) pops up most often in connection with wordplay that seems to waver between the use of singular and plural verbs. (We discussed this question briefly here.) When you have a phrase of two or more words—perhaps as fodder for an anagram or a reversal—many solvers expect them to be treated as a unit and to take a singular verb. But headlinese allows you to read them as separate items lacking “and,” and thus to use a plural verb.
Here’s an example, a clue we used a year or two ago that would not be acceptable to everyone:
Tubers (potatoes) ultimately can come back (4)
The cryptic reading has “potatoes ultimately can” coming back—but gives it a plural verb (“come back”). This can be justified by interpreting “potatoes ultimately” and “can” as two items in a list joined only by an implicit comma. This recent clue works the same way:
In hindsight, vaccines rarely contain poison (7)
The other main aspect of headlinese is its lack of articles. In normal, non-headline English, for example, the title of this post might read, “A local man actually eats a calendar”. Similarly, the English sentence “A change is seen by observers in some neutral territories” might become this headlinese clue:
Change seen in neutral territories (5)
Clues with headlinese surface are not uncommon. The surface reading of a clue suffers a bit from the lack of articles, but cryptic constructors accept this in order to avoid possible red herrings. Is the inclusion of the article for a better surface reading worth the risk of being misinterpreted?
This is not a matter of correctness; the clue is correct either way. Dictionaries almost always use an article as part of the definition for a noun, and there is no reason for cryptic constructors to be holier than lexicographers. (Likewise, dictionaries often include “to” when defining a verb, which leads to a similar situation for clue writers.)
But because there is no consistency on this, even within a single puzzle, it can be a source of confusion. As we mentioned in previous posts, there is a broad consensus among US cryptic constructors, as well as many in the UK, that the solution to a cryptic clue ought to be unique. Thus, upon seeing the following clue by Cox and Rathvon, one of us unhesitatingly entered TORT into the diagram:
A bakery choice pronounced wrong (4)
TORT (wrong) is a homophone of TORTE, which is a bakery choice. However, this was not the intended answer! To complete the puzzle, one had to enter AWRY, a homophone of A RYE, which is a bakery choice. In this case, the presence of “a” in the clue was necessary to the cryptic reading.
As a solver, you should always be aware that “a” (or “to”) may contribute to the cryptic reading—or it may not! In the end, we see inclusion or omission of “a” or “to” as one area where we must make judgment calls. Sometimes we include them, sometimes not. We apologize to those of you who would want an ironclad rule for this. Fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t one.
Solutions to the clues: ALMANAC (hidden), YAMS (reversal), ARSENIC (hidden reversal), ALTER (hidden).
How do you feel about headlinese? 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.