Word Salad | The Nation


Word Salad

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

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Straight and Narrow

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

The other day we heard the behavioral economist Dan Ariely talking on the radio about his new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. One of its themes is that people’s dishonesty can vary across a wide spectrum of behavior, depending on the circumstance. That in turn got us thinking about cheating in solving crosswords. Is there even such a thing? And if so, what are the parameters?

At a first approximation, of course, cheating on a crossword is like cheating at solitaire—unless you’re enrolled in a competition, it’s a contradiction in terms. Solving a puzzle is something each of us does for our own enjoyment, in our own way. Any technique I use to solve a crossword is no business of yours, and vice versa.

But in practical terms, crossword solvers do tend to follow certain guidelines. In the extreme case, if you were to simply look up the answer to each clue in the next issue, no one would realistically say that you had “solved” it—but more importantly, it’s hard to see how you would have derived any pleasure from the exercise. If a puzzle is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing while observing certain constraints.

What’s interesting is how those self-imposed constraints vary from person to person—and how changing the parameters just a little reveals the psychology underlying the process. For instance, many solvers have no compunction about asking a friend, spouse or office-mate for an answer, yet would never ask Google (or Siri) the same question. There seems to be something about sharing the solving process with a fellow, and equally fallible, human being, that feels different from consulting the cyborg mind.

The ethics of looking things up arises much more often in standard crosswords than in cryptics, because cryptic clues are less overt and more deceptive about what they’re asking for. If you see “actress Witherspoon” in a clue, it’s probably asking for “Reese,” but you can’t be sure—and in any case there may be more steps to take before reaching a final answer. So there’s a certain amount of unavoidable brainwork that can’t be circumvented by cheating.

What you can do, with both standard and cryptic puzzles, is use external sources to confirm an answer that you’ve gotten but aren’t sure of. This seems to be the most common, and most widely acceptable, practice that might be construed as “cheating.” All of us have holes in our knowledge, and we all find ourselves at one point or another thinking, “Everything in this clue suggests that such-and-such is the name of a pop singer”—or Impressionist painter, or chemical compound or African capital—“that I’ve never heard of.” And very few of us would refrain from checking that in a dictionary or an on-line search.

What about the situation where you know the answer is A?R?O?L, and is some sort of rotor blade, or perhaps a monk, but no actual word comes to mind? (This may have happened to you in last week’s puzzle.) You also know that Kosman and Picciotto are not shy about throwing in an occasional word you’ve never heard of. Well, fear not: there are electronic aids that will help you fill in the blanks. See, for example, OneLook Dictionary Search, or the National Puzzlers’ League site or the Franklin Crossword Solver devices or (for the iPhone) the Crossword Help app.

Oops. Have we been abetting cheating by providing these suggestions? What are your thoughts about cheating when solving a crossword? Do you have favorite electronic helpers? Are there some practices you think are never OK? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Solver's Disposition

Henri: When you’re solving a cryptic, it can be fun to argue with the constructor in absentia. In our weekend breakfast solving group, for instance, we used to have ongoing arguments with Frank Lewis, The Nation’s cryptic constructor, year after year, decade after decade. In our imagination, we composed a letter that kept getting longer and longer, listing our objections to his clues. This was all in fun, and as much as we complained, we still had fun solving his puzzles.

Joshua: I’ve written those letters in my head myself, more than once. But I never would have considered sending one. What would be the point? Solving puzzles you don’t enjoy, or that go against your personal aesthetics, would be a bore. If the puzzles are that bad, your time is better spent doing something else.

Henri: That’s true. When I pick up my solver’s pencil, I try to put away my editor’s pen. Of course, it’s also fun to solve a puzzle where the clues are so consistently elegant that there is nothing to argue with. The obvious example is Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon’s variety cryptics, which appear monthly in the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua: Different solvers have different preferences, and even the same solver may have different preferences depending on context and mood. For example, while I like clear boundaries in a variety cryptic crossword, I also enjoy wide-open challenges in a puzzle hunt, such as DASH, where you don’t even know a priori what the rules are, and are not given instructions.

Henri: Another contrast is between a situation where I know I can solve the puzzle, as opposed to one where that is in doubt for a long time. In the first situation, I proceed methodically from A to Z and it’s just a matter of time before I’m done. In the second, I may solve a few clues and hit a wall. Then I might put the puzzle aside, and come back to it a few hours later or the next day, and solve a few more. I’m not always in the mood for this sort of challenge, but that kind of puzzle is more satisfying once it is finally conquered. As Piet Hein, the Danish designer of geometric puzzles, put it:

Problems worthy of attack
prove their worth by fighting back.

Joshua: In fact, the same idea applies to a single clue. I love coming across a surprisingly offbeat clue. If I solve a clue on sight, it is often not as pleasurable an experience as cracking a clue where it takes a while for the penny to drop. 

Henri: Inevitably, our own attitudes and experiences as solvers must influence our choices as constructors of the Nation puzzle. We try to write clues we’d like to solve!

Hopefully they are fun for you also. How do you relate to puzzles in general? to The Nation’s puzzle in particular? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Keeping It Inside

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

A classic Monty Python sketch concerns a meeting of the Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things. That, of course, is simply silly. But as cryptic crossword constructors, we do often feel like a local chapter of a hypothetical Society for Putting Things Inside Other Things.

One of the first things we check for when writing a cryptic clue is to see whether the answer word can be read as one word (or word part or anagrammed word) within another. There’s a certain purity and elegance about container clues that makes them a delight to construct and to solve. For one thing, containers often break the entry at unexpected and entertaining places that do not correspond to the entry’s etymology. For another, there’s a clarity to the way the wordplay works that is evident and pleasurable to even a beginning solver.

Some British puzzlers call container clues “sandwich clues,” which is a great word for it. See, for example, the (London) Sunday Times clue-writing contest post from last September.

As you read the examples below, pay attention to the indicator, the word used to indicate what is inside, and/or what is outside. Much of the challenge in writing this kind of clue lies in finding an indicator that flows naturally in the surface reading of the clue, while at the same time doing its cryptic job.

The most basic type of container clue is simply a matter of putting one word into another. Here’s an elemental example from Puzzle #3232:
RANSOMED Paid to release South African money, with a portion invested (8)
In this clue, SOME (“a portion”) is “invested” in RAND (“South African money”) to yield the solution, which means “paid to release.” Note that this is a piece of wordplay that couldn’t be used with any other form of the answer (RANSOMS, RANSOMING, etc.), because the -ED inflection provides the necessary E for SOME.

Here’s another, from Puzzle #3227:
SMASHING Carol, about long-running TV show: “It’s first-rate” (8)
Again, only two words come into play here: MASH (the “long-running TV show”) and SING (“carol,” as a verb).

Containers work just as well with multi-word phrases, as in this clue from Puzzle #3228:
FILIBUSTER Delaying tactic resulting from strain, assuming I clear the table (10)
Here, FILTER (“strain”) goes around I BUS (“I clear the table”) to create a container clue with only two parts, but more than two words.

Much more commonly, though, the container approach needs to be combined with the other building blocks of cryptic clueing. This clue from Puzzle #3216 combines a charade with a multi-word container:
LET THERE BE LIGHT Divine words in Paris: “The narrow includes the revolutionary” (3,5,2,5)

First comes LE (“in Paris, the”), before you even get to the container part (TIGHT around THE REBEL).

One thing that’s occasionally fun to pull off is the nested word container, as in this one from Puzzle #3237:
CRITICIZE Find fault with concierge, superficially, about luxurious hotel around here in Paris (9)
In this clue, we put around RITZ (“luxurious hotel”) around ICI (“here in Paris”)—and then put CE (“concierge, superficially”) around the entire thing. Rings within rings!

SPOILER ALERT: In this week’s puzzle these clues involve containers (often in conjunction with other wordplay techniques): 12A, 23A, 9D, 16D, 21D.

Do you have favorite container clues? Please share them below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Loosening Up

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

We’ve been writing a lot on this blog about the world of British cryptics, particularly in contrast with the American scene. There are a couple of interrelated reasons for that. One is that cryptics are more widespread and more popular on the other side of the Atlantic; they’re found in five daily newspapers and in other periodicals. Even people who may not solve them regularly are often familiar with their workings. (It’s no accident that cryptics are often referred to over here as “British-style” crosswords.)

The second reason is that there’s a vibrant and ongoing discussion among British enthusiasts about the art of cryptic clueing—innovative approaches to wordplay, debates over the aesthetic merits of this clue or that. These are the hallmarks of a living and developing culture.

In the United States, by contrast, that conversation is largely absent. Instead, the world of cryptic crosswords is dominated by a rule-bound approach that declares anything not officially sanctioned to be off-limits. This has the virtue of giving solvers a solid framework to operate in, but it also excludes a vast array of possible avenues for pleasure and discovery.

To take just one simple example, a standard requirement in American cryptics is that the wordplay and definition must be etymologically unrelated; double definitions and the separation of long entries into chunks are similarly expected to be based on distinct etymologies. Yet breaking those rules at times has allowed us to sneak in a joke or pun of some sort, which in turn makes for a more entertaining and enjoyable clue.

Furthermore, making a strict adherence to rules take priority over the pleasure principle is hardly a recipe for popular success. (Who knows, the American Puritan tradition may be subtly at work here.) We maintain that a freer approach to cryptics can only help increase their popularity in the United States.

One reason we believe this is that the world of crosswords has been down this path before, with standard American crosswords. Until the advent of a new generation of constructors a couple of decades ago—and a revolution in style spearheaded by Will Shortz at Games magazine and then in the New York Times—standard crosswords were mired in a constricted range of vocabulary and approaches, and had a shrinking and aging audience to go with it.

The decline of the “Celebes ox” (an infamous classic example of the kind of deadly “crosswordese” that used to infest crossword grids), and an infusion of fresh entries, interesting themes and lively clueing helped American crosswords reach a wider, younger and more open-minded audience. There’s no reason why American cryptics couldn’t make a similar transition.

Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

The Chicken and the Egg

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines.]

There’s an old joke among crossworders about the solver who meets a puzzle constructor for the first time and says, “I’ve always wondered how you go about creating a crossword. Which comes first, the grid or the clues?”

For ordinary crosswords, of the sort you find every day in the New York Times and other newspapers, this is an amusingly nonsensical question. Creating a grid in which every letter is checked (i.e., appears in two different words) is a task with enough constraints to keep a constructor on the alert. (For more on the different kinds of grids, see our blog posts on square patterns and diagram construction.) So all a constructor can really do is build a sound diagram, and then proceed to write clues for all the entries.

Cryptic crosswords, on the other hand—and especially those with checkerboard patterns like the ones in The Nation—offer the constructor enormous latitude in placing words. Except when building a puzzle around a theme of some kind, we find that there are almost always a wide assortment of entries available to us at any given juncture in the constructing process.

The result is that unlike the constructor in the joke, we don’t always start with a grid. Or rather, each puzzle begins with an intricate dance between grid-constructing and clues that have already been written. As we go about our daily lives, we remain on the lookout for the germs of good cryptic clues—long phrases that can be interpreted in two ways, funny homophones, interesting charades or anagrams and so on. We keep those on file—either in the form of a completed cryptic clue or just a general idea—and when the time comes to build a new crossword grid, we tend to use them as the structural beams, with shorter and more flexible entries connecting them as necessary. Because long entries are so much harder to write solid and entertaining clues for, it helps to seed a grid with entries that we know are amenable to it.

And yet one of the greatest spurs to creativity, in this or any other arena, is sheer necessity. Sometimes you just have to write a clue for whatever words the grid includes—and surprisingly often, that requirement yields happy results. For every entry that has appeared in one of our grids because it fit a clue we liked, there are probably two clues we’re proud of that came into being simply because the answer word had forced its way into a grid.

So which comes first? Just as with the chicken and the egg (or words and music in opera) the answer is the old one: Neither. And both.

Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Cryptic Parlor Game

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

The charade is a basic type of cryptic clue in which the entry is broken up into consecutive chunks. These are then defined one after the other, with the definition of the whole coming first or last. This is not unlike the parlor game of charades, or the classic verse charades. For example, from Puzzle 3227:
GORGONZOLA Ugly female novelist makes cheese (10)
Or, from Puzzle 3236:
FLAGELLATED Jack Fitzgerald Kennedy is whipped (11)
(For the latter, we were not sure that “jack” would be recognized as a synonym of “flag,” but the surface of the clue was appealing, and we figured that those solvers who did not feel like looking it up might be satisfied by making the connection with the well-known “Union Jack.”)

The parts of a charade need not be defined in order—but if they’re not, the clue should indicate that explicitly. For example, from Puzzle 3223:
ASTROPHYSICS Science attacks, following baseball team’s award (12)
Here “following” indicates that SICS comes at the end. 
Or from Puzzle 3213:
CARGO PLANE Republicans invading a vehicle passage with a commercial aircraft (5,5)
In this case “invading” indicates that GOP goes in between the other two parts.

A charade may be phonetic, or (to use the lingo of the parlor game) based on “sounds like.” Two examples, respectively from puzzles 3207 and 3214:
UVULA Say, you have… you will… uh… something hanging down the back of your throat (5)
EYEHOLE  Through it, you can see or hear the ego, undivided (7)
The solutions sound like “you’ve you’ll uh” and “I, whole.”

In general, we try to avoid partially phonetic clues, i.e., clues in which one part is phonetic and another is literal. This is not really a rule so much as an aesthetic preference, and something we do violate occasionally. In Puzzle 3204, for instance:
EYESORE Ugly sight and sound of material from which diamonds can be extracted? (7)
In this case, “ice” is phonetic, but “ore” is not.

Finally, there is a type of charade where the cluing is not piecewise but global, cluing “the whole thing.” Here are two examples (respectively from puzzles 3216 and 3233:
BRAINWASH Woman’s laundry list item: indoctrinate (9)
AMPHITHEATER Band’s equipment collided with radiator in auditorium (12)
Perhaps these are not exactly charades, but more like double definitions involving deceptive spacing. (In the argot of the National Puzzlers’ League, they are “heteronyms,” words or phrases that are spelled the same, except perhaps for spacing, and may be pronounced differently.)

Sometimes this leads to the parts being clued out of order, with no explicit indication of that, as in this case, from Puzzle 3232:
GAS PEDAL “It makes the car go,” Unser said with difficulty (3,5)

“Unser“ comes before “said with difficulty” in the clue, even though AL comes after GASPED in the answer. This does not happen often, but it is justified by the global nature of the clue.

Whole-thing charades, or heteronyms, have been among the most popular among our test solvers. One last example, from Puzzle 3199:
ALLEN SCREW Piece of equipment for Midnight in Paris gaffers (5,5)
We later found out that it includes a factual error: it turns out that the credits for Midnight in Paris list only a single gaffer. Presumably this did not prevent anyone from solving the clue.

Do you have favorite charade clues? Please share them below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.


These clues are charades: 11A, 12A, 17A, 26A, 1D, 2D

These clues break the entry into consecutive pieces, like a charade, but involve further wordplay on one or more piece: 9A, 14A, 5D, 16D

Fair's Fair

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

The other day, one of our regular solvers voiced an objection to this clue in last week’s puzzle:

    CHARITABLE  Generous one moving in two pieces of furniture (10)

Here, the wordplay points the solver to two pieces of furniture (CHAIR, TABLE), with I (“one”) changing position in it to yield the answer (“generous”). This clue struck our friend as unfair, because he felt that it came too close to violating the taboo on “indirect anagrams.”

Before considering this complaint, let’s take a minute to rehearse what constitutes a forbidden indirect anagram. By longstanding convention, a constructor who asks a solver to anagram a group of letters is expected to supply those letters (the so-called “anagram fodder”) explicitly in the clue itself.

What’s not acceptable is to give the solver a synonym of the anagram fodder, and expect him or her to first find the intended synonym, and then put its letters in the right order. That’s an indirect anagram, and it’s not hard to see why it places an undue burden on the solver. Most words can have a number of different synonyms, so it’s not always easy to know when you have the right one; to then be asked to rearrange the letters of a word that might not even be right is a step too far.

There’s no question that our clue for CHARITABLE has a bit of this problem to it. But we would argue that the distinction between indirect anagrams and legitimate clues is not entirely clear-cut. Rather, they lie at the two ends of a spectrum that contains a graded series of wordplay strategies—and our clue was an attempt to see whether we could nudge the line of acceptability a little further without sacrificing fairness.

What all the clues on this spectrum have in common is this: the solver is asked to (a) find a synonym for a word or phrase in the clue, and then (b) perform some kind of operation on it. What varies along the spectrum is how strictly determined the operation is.

So at one extreme are clues in which no operation is performed at all; the synonym is simply placed directly into the answer. Here’s a simple example from last week:

    CARNATION  Pink auto country (9)

There’s nothing for the solver to do here except find the appropriate synonyms for “auto” and “country” and glom them together. At the opposite end, the operation is anagramming, and there’s general agreement that that is too indeterminate a process to be fair.

But between these extremes, consider the range of things a solver might be asked to do to a synonym once it's found:
    1) reverse it
    2) say it out loud (i.e., find a homophone)
    3) remove the first or last letter
    4) remove the nth letter, where n is specified, or where the letter is specified some other way
    5) change a specified letter to another specified letter
    6) remove the first or last half, or some other specified fraction
    7) move a specified letter to a new and specified location
    8) move a letter from a specific location to a new and unspecified location, as in these clues
        (from Puzzles 3233 and 3236, respectively):
        PISCES  Postpone first bit of seasoning for fish (6)
        ABDOMEN  A black cat, perhaps, with head stuffed inside belly (7)
    9) move a specific letter to a new and unspecified location
  10) move an unspecified letter to a new and unspecified location
  11) change an unspecified letter to another unspecified letter

Now, note that although these processes shade into one another, they vary in their acceptability in a cryptic clue. 1, 2, 3, and 4 are uncontroversially OK. 5 is fine as long as it’s quite clear, while 6 tends to be more or less accepted depending on the length of the word. 8 is unorthodox, but we’ve done it without complaint, and 11 is undeniably too ambiguous to be fair. In between comes 9, which is the CHARITABLE clue—and it’s just a hair further along the spectrum than 8. Frankly, we don’t rule out some day using 10 if the letter shift is interesting, and if instead of a general anagram indicator the clue makes it clear that the change is minimal.

The point, as ever, is that a lot of what solvers come to see as fair or unfair in a cryptic puzzle is a matter of convention and expectation, and often those conventions can be unnecessarily narrow.

The bottom line is that we consider moving a single letter to get from CHAIR TABLE to CHARITABLE to be fun and interesting. Likewise SPICES to PISCES, with an interesting change in pronunciation, and BAD OMEN to ABDOMEN. All three would be boring as anagrams, but as letter shifts they’re quite entertaining—and isn’t that what this game is all about?

What’s your feeling about this clue, and others like it? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Ars Magna

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines.]

Early on in our stint as The Nation’s cryptic constructors, we heard complaints from more than one solver that our puzzles contained too many anagrams. At the same time, we heard from a friend who was helping a newbie learn about cryptics that she loved the anagrams, because even as a beginner, she could solve them! And there’s the conundrum in a nutshell. We don’t have a quota for how many of instances of each clue type we use in each puzzle, but when it comes to anagrams, it’s generally true that beginners want more of them and experienced solvers want fewer. Our hope is that we will err in both directions, visiting every proportion between the extremes and thus occasionally hitting the exactly right mix for each solver.

An anagram is a rearrangement of the letters of a word or phrase that yields another word or phrase. For example, in Puzzle 3205, we used the fact that the letters in CROATIANS can be rearranged to spell “raincoats”:
CROATIANS …tattered raincoats for Southern Europeans (9)

An anagram clue in a cryptic requires a definition (“Southern Europeans,” in the example above), some anagram fodder (the words whose letters will be rearranged, in this case “raincoats”) and an anagram indicator, which serves as an instruction to the solver (“tattered”). It’s hard to argue that “tattered” indicates the rearranging of letters, but any experienced solver of cryptic crosswords will have no trouble guessing that’s what’s going on. Certainly, there is a wide range of words that indicate anagrams. Some cryptic cognoscenti insist that only words that indicate disorder can be used as indicators. A typical example of the latter appeared in Puzzle 3208:
DADAISTS Sad, staid, upset, and provocative artists (8)
Here “upset” is the indicator, “sad, staid” is the fodder, and “provocative artists,” of course, is the definition.

However, there are other possibilities for anagram indicators. For example, words that make reference to sequencing without indicating disorder might be used, as in this clue from Puzzle 3220:
WOZNIAK Tech pioneer: “I know A-Z, but in a different order” (7)

A favorite anagram indicator of our predecessor Frank Lewis was “sort.” We used it in this clue in Puzzle 3226:
LAICISM Sort of Islamic philosophy of church-state separation (7)

Notice that these examples have between 7 and 9 letters, which strikes us as the most satisfying range for anagrams. Very short anagrams are perhaps too easy to solve, and can only be justified with a very natural surface reading. Here’s one from Puzzle 3218:
LIDS Tops slid off (4)
(Yes, “off” is a legitimate anagram indicator.)

In the case of long entries, we consider anagrams a last resort. The English language is such that a fourteen- or fifteen-letter phrase can always be rearranged into something else. Take KLEENEX TISSUES, which might appear unfriendly with that K and that X. Nevertheless, the Internet Anagram Server spits out 6,996 anagrams for those letters. Perhaps one of those could be used in a cryptic clue, but it was so much better to clue this with a charade (KLEE + NEXT + ISSUES in Puzzle 3199):
KLEENEX TISSUES Painter subsequently produces things to sneeze at? (7,7)

That said, we are sometimes forced to anagram a long entry, for lack of a better idea. Here’s an example from Puzzle 3232:
RENE DESCARTES Mathematician-philosopher misplaced decent erasers (4,9)

How do you feel about anagrams in clues? Do you have favorite anagram clues you came across or created? Please share below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

The clue for 1D was based on an idea from puzzle master and humorist Francis Heaney. We’ve been wanting to steal this for a cryptic clue ever since we started, but we had to wait for the blog so we could credit him.

These clues in puzzle 3239 are anagrams: 12A, 14A, 23A, 24A, 21D.
These clues involve anagrams as part of the wordplay: 28A, 29A, 2D, 4D, 17D.


Breaching the Firewall

(First off, here are links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines.)

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the clear division in nearly all cryptic clues between the two essential components of a clue, the definition and the wordplay. Those are the elements that mutually prop one another up to lead to an unambiguous solution, and in most cases they are meant to be kept well apart.

But there are rare instances in which the definition and the wordplay get to mix it up a little. The classic case is the clue type known as an &lit. (the designation, which goes back to cryptic crosswords’ British roots, is short for “and literally so”). Here, the entire clue does double duty, serving as both the definition and the wordplay. These are the triple toe loops of the cryptic world: difficult to execute, flashy and impressive when done right. By convention, they’re generally flagged with a final exclamation point.

Here’s an example, from Puzzle #3232:

19 XERXES For example, masculine king from the East! (6)

(That, at least, is how the clue was supposed to read. Because of a communications mixup, it ran with “to” instead of “from”. Our apologies.)

The entire clue provides the wordplay (SEX plus REX reversed, or from the East) and at the same time it works as a definition for XERXES.

The workings of an &lit. clue are pretty straightforward, and there’s general agreement on the rules. In particular, clues that work fully with only one of the two parts—in which, say, the entire clue presents wordplay but the definition only accounts for part of the clue—are widely frowned upon. But a grayer area arises when a constructor allows a little leakage between the two parts. Here’s an example from last week’s puzzle:

1 HERACLES He clears stable? No and yes (8)

It’s impossible to break this clue into two discrete parts, yet it isn’t an &lit. either. Rather, it executes a sort of branching fork in the middle, so that “He clears stable? No” is the wordplay (an anagram of he clears) and “He clears stable? Yes” is the definition, a reference to Heracles’ labor in cleaning the Augean stable.

We would not have attempted such an unorthodox clue structure under just any circumstances. We did it here because “no and yes” seemed to justify that kind of switching mechanism, and because the clue presented the opportunity for a semi-inverted &lit. There may be other opportunities to write clues along these lines.

Then there’s the more casual breach, allowing small syntactic or semantic references to flow from one part of a clue to another. Here’s an example from Puzzle #3230:

17 NEON LIGHT Darkness engulfs Libya’s capital after many years—this could vanquish it? (4,5)

The definition (“this could vanquish it”) doesn’t stand on its own, because “it” refers back to the “Darkness” mentioned in the wordplay part of the clue. Purists are apt to reject such things; we don’t really mind them. To our way of thinking, a small leak here and there helps bind a clue together, and keeps a puzzle fresh and interesting.

If you have any thoughts on the issues raised here—or if you have comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about Puzzle #3237 or any previous puzzle—please post them in comments.


Put It In a Letter

[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines.]

Last week’s post touched on the phenomenon of having a single authoritative reference that solvers and constructors can count on. Most British puzzles use Chambers, and the puzzles we used to edit for The Enigma used Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In addition to providing standardized vocabulary, as we discussed last week, this also had the virtue of providing a list of sanctioned abbreviations for single letters or letter combinations. (Note for beginners: When an abbreviation is used in a cryptic clue, it is not necessary to indicate this with “in brief” or the like.)

To our mild surprise, when we began constructing puzzles for The Nation we discovered that that second function was by far the more valuable of the two. “Is such-and-such a legitimate word or phrase?” turns out to be considerably easier question to answer in most cases than “Is such-and-such a legitimate, or familiar, abbreviation?” Certain abbreviations are clearly fair game—chemical symbols, for example, or two-letter postal abbreviations. But what about D for daughter, L for lake or V for vector? These are all recognizable equivalences under the right circumstances—but is it fair to expect solvers to make these connections out of context?

With an authoritative source dictionary, the matter becomes simple: if the abbreviation is listed, then it’s fair game, period. And over the years we became accustomed to using the abbreviations in Merriam-Webster—including such wonderful oddballs as O for pint or S for label—whenever we needed to clue a single letter. But without a dictionary, the number of abbreviations that are unquestionably familiar turns out to be fairly small.

Frank Lewis (our predecessor at The Nation) routinely used “point” for N, E, W or S, and also clued Roman numerals as “large number,” say. We have tended to want to be more specific, making explicit which cardinal point or which Roman numeral we are referring to. In the thriving British cryptic universe, there are so many ways to clue single letters that Alan Connor has dedicated entire posts in the Guardian cryptic blog to single letters. See, for example, his article about the letter D.

In the absence of both a rich cryptic culture and a standard reference, we find ourselves struggling more often than we used to when we have to clue the individual letters as part of the wordplay. Roman numerals give access to a handful of letters, except that they are immediately spottable by solvers. Chemical elements don’t often work with the surface meaning of a clue, and postal abbreviations only come in pairs.

That leaves a few tried-and-true techniques, chiefly the first-letter or last-letter gambit: “gang leader” to clue G, “Mexico’s capital” for M, or “close of day” for Y. With a little luck, a constructor can also sometimes point to a particular interior letter—“Beethoven’s Fifth” to clue H is a venerable classic—but those are not often appropriate to a clue’s surface.

So we’re always on the lookout for new ways to point to individual letters. That’s why we love movies like M, with Peter Lorre, and why our favorite novel (for these purposes) is Thomas Pynchon’s V.

If you have any suggestions for clueing single letters—or if you have comments, questions, kudos or complaints about Puzzle #3236—please post them in comments.


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