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Word Salad

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

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Hobgoblins

This week witnessed a minor contretemps in the world of crossword puzzles. The details are not especially important, nor are they easy to discuss without the risk of spoiling a prominent puzzle for those who may not have solved it yet (the original blog posts are here and here). But the underlying issue had to do with the importance of consistency in a puzzle’s theme.

If you construct a puzzle based on theme entries in which one letter changes to another, must every occurrence of that letter change? Are little words such as “of” and “the” exempt? Does it make a difference if the changing letter is a rarity like Q or Z, or a workhorse like E or T? And what about puzzle themes that involve entire words? Do the thematic words have to occur at particular locations in the theme entries—the beginning or the end, say—or can they be placed freely?

As you might expect, those taking part in the discussion (which soon spilled off of the blogs and onto Facebook) wound up arrayed along a continuum, from advocates for maximum consistency to those maintaining a more laissez-faire attitude. There was general agreement that some degree of consistency is required in order to make a puzzle theme both comprehensible and pleasurable; the question is how to make that judgment.

These questions arise for us as well when we construct puzzles with themes. In recent months, for example, we’ve run some themes with comparatively loose constraints. For Puzzle #3313, we used whatever long entries we could find that included the part words we were trying to use; Puzzle #3289, by contrast, put the names of the three most recent popes in the same spot in each of three theme entries.

And sometimes, we split the difference. We built Puzzle #3307 around the countries with four-letter names. There are 10 of them, of which we could only get seven into the grid. So to placate our consciences—and the nagging cry of consistency—we put the other three into the clues.

How important do you find consistency in a crossword theme? 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 (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)

• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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