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Response to a Solver | 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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Click here for Kosman and Picciotto’s tips on how to work their puzzles116.49 KB

Response to a Solver

Solver BentFranklin writes:

Happy new year and thanks for the many hours of mental exercises!

You are very welcome. This job also provides us with many hours of mental exercises!

Referring to your attachment, I think there are two types of clues that need a little more help for the solver in the form of an indication.

The attachment, as you refer to it, is the document (PDF) in which we explain how to solve our puzzles. We encourage all solvers to read it. It also includes links to Word Salad posts where we give more information on the various clue types. Most of it is a basic introduction to standard American-style cryptic crosswords, but you zero in on the part about some ways that our puzzles may differ from what many US solvers have seen before.

The rebus, where the wordplay is in the answer, is probably unsolvable going forward. No one is going to get BROKEN HEART from EARTH except after solving it from the definition and the cross letters, which makes that clue basically a concise crossword clue with a witty aftertaste. The same goes when the answer is the letter bank, such as your example NURSEMAID. There needs to be some indicator that the sense is reversed. Without it, the implied contract between setter and solver is somewhat strained. I like difficulty, but there still needs to be some route from the clue to the answer. Perhaps something like
   BROKEN HEART  Earth is the answer to despair (6,5)

About letter banks: One reason this type of clue is not common outside of our puzzles is probably that it is hard to indicate. We certainly agree that “there needs to be some indicator” about which direction the clue goes (from bank to longer word, or vice versa). In fact, we always provide such indicators, including in the example you’re referring to. Or at least we try—it could be that the indicators are not as transparent as we think to people who are not accustomed to the letter bank concept. We’ll do our best to be clearer, at least until those are seen as a standard part of the constructor’s arsenal.

About rebuses: You have a point when you say that it’s difficult to solve a rebus clue through the wordplay alone, and your suggestion to indicate the clue is “backwards” makes sense. However, it is not one we are likely to adopt. When we describe the clue as backwards, it’s to explain it to someone who is new to rebuses, but familiar with cryptics. In reality, E is indeed “Beethoven’s Third”, and O is indeed “second in command”—there is nothing backwards about it.

EARTH as “broken heart” does indeed take things one step further, but it is not different enough, in our opinion, to warrant different treatment. That type of clue long predates our puzzles in The Nation, and in fact predates most US cryptics, as it was used by Frank Lewis periodically over his sixty-year career. You can accuse us of innovation for bringing the letter bank to cryptic crosswords, but in the case of the rebus clue, we are hard-core traditionalists!

One reason we like rebus clues is that in some cases (e.g., “Earth despair (6,5)”) we can write a short clue for a long entry. Without the rebus, a two-word clue would almost certainly be a double definition. With it, there is a little more mystery.

In any case, we don’t use letter banks or rebus clues all that much, since not many entries lend themselves to that sort of treatment. We hope that they provide a welcome bit of variety—a witty aftertaste, as you put it. That is certainly what our test solvers report. They consistently rate these clues as among their favorites. As with any other clue type, one gets better at solving them as one gets more experience.

On the other hand, anagrams are so common, perhaps we don’t need anagram indicators anymore? That might cause an insurrection, but I think it’s worth considering. Maybe that could be a theme for one puzzle, with one of the clues letting us know somehow not to expect anagram indicators for this one.

You are right—removing the indicators would indeed start an insurrection. Besides, there is already a whole genre of crosswords that involves anagrams with no indicators. It’s called “Puns and Anagrams”, and The New York Times publishes one on Sunday every few weeks. We won’t stop indicating anagrams, but we won’t rule out that possibility for a themed puzzle along the lines you suggest. Other than that, we do push the envelope a little by the occasional use of compound anagrams. Maybe we should do more of that!

Again, thank you for your thoughts—this is what we think Word Salad comments are for, even if we don’t always agree with you.

How do the rest of you feel about unorthodox clues? 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 four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books, where you can solve past puzzles on your iOS device
• 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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