Quantcast

Word Salad | The Nation

  •  

Word Salad

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

AttachmentSize
Click here for Kosman and Picciotto’s tips on how to work their puzzles116.49 KB

One on One, Part Two

Even though we sign all our puzzles and blog posts with a double byline, we are of course different people, with distinct histories and approaches to puzzling. Last week, Henri interviewed Joshua. This week we turn the tables.

JK: You grew up in Lebanon, a native French speaker. How did you first discover cryptic crosswords?

HP: As a teenager, I enjoyed crosswords in French, including some fairly challenging ones. Like American crosswords, French crosswords are definition-based, and the more challenging puzzles rely on clever and unexpected use of the language. I mostly found crosswords in paperback collections. Alas, those are now too hard for me! While I am of course still a fluent speaker of French, my command of the language has slipped when it comes to puzzle-solving. Anyone interested in French crosswords might enjoy my translation of novelist Georges Perec’s introduction to his books of puzzles.

Later, my British brother-in-law, a songwriter, introduced me to cryptics. Still later, in the US, I started solving Hex, Maltby and Frank Lewis. In fact, I launched a weekend breakfast Frank Lewis co-solving group. The group went on for decades, and through it I introduced many people to cryptics.

JK: And that group still meets!

HP: Yes, but now I just watch, as they test-solve Kosman-Picciotto puzzles.

JK: …which brings us to your career as a constructor. Tell us about that.

HP: I met Rebecca Kornbluh (Arachne in the National Puzzlers’ League) at an NPL convention. We found out that we both owned a book of cryptics by Azed, the diabolical setter for The Observer in the UK. Neither of us was able to finish those puzzles alone, so we decided to work on them together by mail. (This was long before e-mail.) It went really well, and she suggested we collaborate on constructing puzzles for the NPL. That was the start of a twenty-year constructors’ collaboration, which I may recount in a future post. Some time after that, you and I were asked to jointly edit the cryptics for The Enigma, and that was the start of the fifteen-year collaboration which morphed into our current project.

JK: What effect does it have to create wordplay in a second language? I think of you as the puzzle equivalent of writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Stoppard, whose mastery of language comes from learning it consciously. Is that accurate?

HP: I am flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as two of my favorite writers. Here’s a possibly more apt comparison. Someone—I think it was you, actually—once told me that two extreme reactions of living in a country where you are not a native speaker could be seen among the Marx Brothers: Harpo’s (not speaking at all) and Groucho’s (wanting total mastery of the language). I strive for the same mastery as these English-language learners, although in a less consequential arena.

JK: Is there any aspect of puzzling in which your linguistic background gives you trouble?

HP: Homophone clues! I have been in the US pretty much continuously for more than forty-five years, and I still don’t hear the phonemes the way you do. The ongoing tragedy of my life as one of the Nation puzzle constructors is that so many of my ideas for homophone clues have to be junked. (I also can’t get rid of my accent, but that’s not as much of a problem, because at least people think it’s charming!)

JK: One final question: What do you look for in a cryptic crossword, as a constructor and as a solver?

HP: As a constructor, I try to be as entertaining as possible within the parameters we describe in our guidelines. However, as a solver, I turn off the editor in my brain, and just enjoy the puzzles without worrying about the correctness of the clues. For me, it’s about filling the grid, not scrutinizing every clue. And moreover, I have a high tolerance for not succeeding. When I attempt to solve British cryptics, I often fail to complete them. So what? As we are fond of saying in the NPL, it’s only a hobby,

Do you have any questions or comments for us? 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.

One on One, Part 1

Even though we sign all our puzzles and blog posts with a double byline, we are of course different people, with distinct histories and approaches to puzzling. For the next two blog posts, we thought we would take the opportunity to introduce ourselves separately, by interviewing each other.

HP: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first discover cryptic crosswords?

JK: I was a puzzle aficionado from as soon as I could read and write. But I learned about cryptics from my father, and he learned about them during a sabbatical year in London. I was 9 at the time, and too young to really join him in solving, but he used to show me clues that were particularly ingenious. I could see there was something exciting and entertaining going on there.

When our family returned to the US—this was around 1970—there were no cryptic crosswords easily available here. (We didn’t know about Stephen Sondheim’s puzzles in New York magazine.) But there was Mel Taub’s Puns and Anagrams puzzle in The New York Times, and that was my introduction to any kind of non-standard crosswords. I soon tried my hand at writing clues myself, using standard crossword grids from Dell magazines. I’m sure the results were terrible.

HP: So how did you find your way to full-scale cryptics?

JK: When Hex began publishing in The Atlantic, it was a red-letter day in our family. Their puzzles, and Richard Maltby’s in Harper’s, were a revelation. I waited eagerly for both of those magazines every month.

HP: I introduced you to the National Puzzlers’ League many years ago. Did that affect your relationship to cryptic crosswords?

JK: Very much so, because it got me into constructing cryptics on a regular basis. For years, my only constructing outlet was The Enigma. And then when we took over as cryptic editors there, I began to think about the form in a more systematic way.

HP: Your training is in music. Do you think there’s a connection between music and puzzles?

JK: Empirically it seems that there must be—there’s such a large overlap between musicians and puzzles—but I’ve never been entirely sure what it is. Math is in there too, and computers (I began my career, briefly, as a programmer). It seems to have something to do with pattern-matching, and constraints, and so on.

When I was in graduate school in musicology, a professor once gave us an assignment based on an obscure piece of seventeenth-century polyphony. The manuscript was missing two of the six vocal lines, and we were supposed to reconstruct them based on the rules of counterpoint. The process felt identical to making a crossword grid; it was the easiest A I ever got.

HP: How has your thinking about cryptics changed over the years?

JK: Actually, I find musical style to be a helpful model in thinking about the practice of cryptic crosswords. The idea is to work within a set of conventions—whether it’s Baroque counterpoint or late-Romantic harmony—that are well understood. Sometimes you want to violate those conventions to produce a sense of surprise or delight; but if you go too far afield the result is a mess. And of course, conventions can change. We allow things in the Nation puzzle that we would have rejected in the Enigma.

HP: What do you look for in a cryptic crossword, either as a constructor or a solver?

JK: The same things most people look for, I suppose: imagination, freshness, wit and ingenuity. My favorite solving experiences are the ones that take me by surprise—where there’s a final payoff or punch line that I didn’t see coming. For that reason, I usually try to solve without skipping ahead to the final reveal; if something is going to be spelled out in the grid or the clues, I want it to catch me unawares. That’s the same kind of experience we like to give to our solvers.

Next week, Joshua interviews Henri. Do you have any questions or comments for us? 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.

Double Talk

The double definition is the simplest and most straightforward type of cryptic clue. It contains no anagrams, no reversals, no charades—none of the elaborate mechanisms that characterize all the other clue types. For wordplay, it simply serves up a second definition, thus providing the required two paths to a solution by the shortest possible means. In fact, beginning solvers may note that a two-word clue is almost always a double definition, since two words do not provide enough raw materials for any of the other, more complicated clue types.

Yet within this simple framework, the double definition (or double-def to aficionados) covers a deceptively wide range of operations. It also raises a number of tricky questions—particularly the issue of how unrelated the two meanings must be for a clue to be seen as legitimate.

Our general principle is that a word should exist as separate entries in the dictionary in order to be the basis of a double-def. That is to say, we should be dealing not with two different senses of a single word, but with two different words that happen to be spelled identically—as for instance FELL (sinister) and FELL (stumbled), or MINE (pit) and MINE (belonging to me). Etymology is often a good indicator in these cases. And if two words are spelled identically but pronounced differently—such as SUPPLY (equip) and SUPPLY (in a limber manner)—well, so much the better.

But as is so often the case, we regard this more as a guideline than as an iron-clad rule. Sometimes a clue works so nicely on the surface that a little etymological kinship can be overlooked. For example:
   IRON  Press club (4)

Or the etymological link may be there but not readily apparent to the casual solver:
   FINE  Penalty? Yes! (4)

In still other cases, a difference in pronunciation can compensate for etymological overlap:
   OBJECT  Oppose goal (6)

The most common vehicle for double definition clues are short monosyllabic words that have come into the language in different ways. For instance:
   RAIL  Bird’s means of transportation (4)
   TANK  Military vehicle to fail completely (4)
   CHAD  Piece of paper hanging from The Nation (4)

But sometimes longer words can lend themselves to double-defs as well:
   UNIONIZED  Having no charge in a labor group (9)

and even:
   CONSTITUTIONAL  Walk within legal limits (14)

One particularly fertile source of double definition clues are proper names, which can be read differently depending on whether or not they are capitalized. For example:
   EVERT  Former tennis champion is upset (5)
   SHEEN  Luster of an actor (father or son) (5)

Double definition can also shade into puns, when one of the definitions is a whimsical coinage or secondary meaning:
   HOWLER  Wolf’s blunder (6)
   WOODSY  Tiger-like, or evoking the forest (6)

Then there are the full-on puns:
   PASSING THE BAR  Daunting challenge for an aspiring lawyer—or an alcoholic? (7,3,3)

And every once in a long while, it’s possible to come up with a double-definition clue that is an &lit. Here’s one:
   GAME  Duck, Duck, Goose, for instance! (4)

Do you have any favorite double-definition 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 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.

Local Man Actually Eats Calendar (7)

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.

In Plain Sight

For solvers, the hidden-word clue is simultaneously the easiest and (potentially) the hardest type of clue in the cryptic arsenal. Like the title document in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story “The Purloined Letter,” the answer is right before the solver’s eyes all along, which can make it either easy to spot or infuriatingly easy to overlook—or both.

That duality is what gives the solving of a hidden-word clue its unique emotional charge. Cracking other clues, after all, is generally a two-stage process—the solver has to figure out what type of clue he or she is dealing with, and then go ahead and act on that knowledge. That process can stall at any point. It’s very common, for instance, to be aware that a clue involves an anagram but still not able to come up with a correct solution right away.

Solving a hidden-word clue, by contrast, is all about detecting the clue type, through such indicators as “found in,” “runs through” or “concealed by.” Once you’ve done that, finding the answer is straightforward to the point of triviality. So when a hidden-word clue resists for any length of time, there’s a head-slapping moment that all cryptic aficionados are familiar with. The answer was right there all along!

From a constructor’s standpoint, a hidden-word clue—especially for a short answer of no more than 5 or 6 letters—can be seductively easy to come up with. So we generally try to use them in a handful of circumstances: when the answer word can be hidden in an interesting way, or when the clue gives a smooth surface, or as a last resort when other clueing strategies fail. Here are some examples of hidden-word clues from past puzzles:
   ACTS OUT  In fact, Southerner misbehaves (4,3)
   AGITATO  With a jittery manner, it’s essential to flag it at once (7)
   ALPHA  Beginning part of crucial phase (5)
   NAURU  Country on Argentina-Uruguay border (5)
   PINTO BEAN  Legume is ingredient of soup, in to be a nutrient (5,4)

Hidden-word clues can be done in reverse as well, as in these examples:
   MADNESS  Lunatics send a message back, concealing mental instability (7)
   PENCIL  Left-leaning Catholic nephew embraces writer (6)
   VIRTUOSOS  In retrospective, Picasso’s outrivaled masters of technique (9)

As you can see, most (though not all) hidden-word clues tend to be suitable for short answer words. But we did pull off one supersized hidden word, expressly aimed at Nation readers:
   ERIC ALTERMAN  INation columnist captivated by chimerical term: “Antineoliberalism” (4,8)

Do you have any favorite hidden-word 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 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.

Puzzle One Hundred

In the most recent issue, you will find our 100th puzzle for this magazine. We’re celebrating this milestone with a slightly different format, starring C, the Roman numeral for 100. In the diagram, words are separated not by black squares but by bars. One thing that makes bar diagram cryptics easier is that there are more intersections, so your across answers will provide more help with the downs, and vice versa. But one thing that makes this particular puzzle more challenging is that we do not tell you where the answers go, other than by anchoring them with the Cs. We have written about bar diagrams before. If you are attached to the standard black-square puzzle, worry not: we venture away from them only once or twice a year.

Also in honor of our 100th puzzle, we have updated our solvers’ guidelines. The original version did not mention our recurring themed puzzles, and did not explain some of the newer clue types we have been using, in particular the rebus clue and the letter bank clue. We’ve also added links to Word Salad posts where various clue types are explained in more detail. As we write posts about the remaining clue types, we’ll make sure to insert links to those in the guidelines document, so it can serve as a permanent reference.

Another way you can learn how our puzzles work is to solve them on an iOS device, using the Puzzazz app. The first forty puzzles have been published on that platform: Volume 1 had 20 of them, and Volume, 2 which appeared recently, had the next 20. Each volume goes for $4.95. They are titled Out of Left Field, which we hope is appropriate in more ways than one. The beauty of solving on Puzzazz is that all sorts of hints and explanations are available. For example, you can ask where the break is between definition and wordplay, or what type of clue it is. Read more about Puzzazz here.

We have quite enjoyed creating our first 100 puzzles, and we look forward to the next hundred!

Would you like to wish us a happy 100th anniversary? Please do it 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.

Deep Grammar

In a previous post, we wrote that every cryptic clue has to read grammatically, both on the surface and at the cryptic level. That turns out to be a more complex requirement than it might seem at first glance. Continuing our earlier discussion, here are some of the other grammatical issues that complicate clue-writing.

Tense

By convention, most clues take place in the present tense. We’re not talking now about the surface meaning, which can range pretty much anywhere, but about the cryptic working of the clue. The components of a charade are juxtaposed in the present moment, as the solver reads the clue; similarly with the letters in an anagram, or the pieces of a container clue.

But must it be so? There doesn’t seem to be any inherent reason, for example, why one couldn’t write a clue that construes the wordplay as having happened in the past. In such cases, the clue’s premise is that the processes of the wordplay—the assembling of the charade, the scrambling of the anagram fodder or the out-loud pronunciation of the homophone—have already taken place before the solver arrives on the scene (and in fact, that is always the case, since the constructor was there first).

In most cases, a more conventional present-tense clue works just as well, and we generally opt for those. But there have been several occasions when the surface of a clue calls for past-tense wordplay. Here are a few examples:
   STEPPED IN  Very softly, editor interrupted Gertrude and intervened (7,2)
   EWER  I heard you were a pitcher (4)
   PRIMA DONNA  Diva, before “Like a Virgin” was heard? (5,5)
   O CANADA  What you might hear at a hockey game: “California tied zero to zero” (1,6)
   TAKEN IN  Welcomed neatnik after tidying up (5,2)

Could one go further and write a clue in the future tense? Well, perhaps. For instance, what about this clue, for a puzzle published in February:
   MARCH  Leader in musical will take a bow next month (5)

It might not be optimal (we’d probably look for a better definition), but it would surely be legitimate.

One context in which we would not fiddle with tenses, on the other hand, is in the connection between two parts of a clue. An equivalence, let’s say between the two parts of a double-definition clue, is always true. In this clue, for instance:
   FILE  Tool is put away (4)
changing “is” to “was” or “will be,” though it would work on the surface, would make for a very strange cryptic reading.

Person

Generally, clues are written in the third person. But there is a tradition in the UK—almost unheard of on this side of the pond—for the definition in a clue to refer to itself in the first person. Here’s an example by Richard Maltby:
   STONEWARE  I was fired in just one war: Europe (9)

We haven’t made use of this technique to date, but we’re going to add it to our repertoire.

Number

One of the disputes we occasionally have between ourselves has to do with the question of whether to use singular or plural verbs. Most commonly the question is whether the fodder in an anagram clue should be treated as singular (because it’s one word or phrase) or plural (treating the anagrammed letters as individuals).

For instance, which of these clues is better?
   SHIFT  Fish migrates before temperature change (5) [treating FISH as a unit]
   SHIFT  Fish migrate before temperature change (5) [treating F, I, S, H as four items]
In this case, as in many cases, we’d most likely dodge the issue by making the verb a gerund:
   SHIFT  Fish migrating before temperature change (5)

But there are often cases where one or the other makes a better surface, and then we have to make the call.

What are your thoughts about clue grammar? 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.

Cryptic Royalty

Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon are American puzzle constructors. Their joint nom de plume in the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL) is Hex, and this is how we will refer to them in this post. They contribute acrostics to The New York Times, a Sunday crossword to the Boston Globe, and a gently themed cryptic crossword weekly to the National Post. At one time, they had a cryptic acrostic in The Progressive. But it is as cryptic constructors that their impact on US puzzles has been the greatest. Frank Lewis, Stephen Sondheim, and Richard Maltby preceded them as cryptic setters, but the influence of these three British-inspired giants did not reach beyond their own puzzles. Hex, in contrast, set the parameters for cryptic crosswords in the United States. Their impact cannot be overestimated.

Cox and Rathvon constructed the variety cryptic crosswords for The Atlantic for decades. Each of those puzzles included an additional gimmick beyond the cryptic clues: an additional piece of wordplay that must be applied to some of the answers before entering them into the diagram, or a humorous answer to a question that gets revealed at the end of the solving process, or the use of thematic clues, or a diagram featuring creative geometric innovations. In the case of Hex, “variety” is the right word: they have come up with a spectacular range of original, witty and elegant ideas to spice up their puzzles, month after month after month. And after they could no longer be found in the back of The Atlantic, they resumed this astounding series with a monthly Saturday puzzle in The Wall Street Journal (here is a link to their latest).

Here are some examples of Hex’s mastery of cryptic clue writing, selected from recent puzzles:
   FREE AGENT  Contract seeker after Gene Wilder (4,5)
   SUTRA  Hindu teaching us art in a new way (5)
   SCANDINAVIAN  In northern lands, digitally capture noise of the birds (12)
   OBOIST  Musician is in love with droid (6)
   UMPED  Leaped after the leader made the calls (5)
   INTAGLIO  Crackpot toiling over a carving (8)
   DELAYING  In no hurry taking eggs back? (8)

They spread their influence on US cryptics not just by example but also through direct mentoring of constructors during their stints as editors for Games magazine and Dell publications, and through an online clue-writing workshop they used to run on the New York Times website. Moreover, they spelled out their views on clue-writing in the Random House Guide to Cryptic Crosswords, which is probably the most authoritative such publication in the United States. They are so respected that for most US cryptic constructors—and for surprisingly many US cryptic solvers—if it’s not done in the Hex mold, it’s not done right. Interestingly, Hex themselves are quite humble, and only ever present their choices as just that: choices.

As regular solvers of the Nation puzzle and readers of this blog know, Hex are not our sole influence. We have also learned from Frank Lewis, from the puzzles in The Enigma (the NPL monthly) and from British cryptics. Still, we are second to no one in our admiration of the monarchs of the US cryptic realm. Three cheers for Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon!

What are your thoughts about Hex and their work? 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.

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.

What are your thoughts about clue grammar? 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.

More Unique?

In our previous post, we discussed the possibility of ambiguous clues that don’t lead to a unique solution. Most commonly, these arise unintentionally when a reversal or homophone clue is arranged in a symmetrical fashion. In those cases, the ambiguity generally centers on determining which part of the clue is the definition and which is the wordplay.

There are also occasions—although they’re not particularly common—where two very different readings of a clue can yield two different answers. For example, we once included this clue in an early version of a puzzle:
   Metal fastener is no trouble (4)
The intended solution was NAIL, but a test solver pointed out that the very same clue could be read differently, and clue SNAP. We decided to use a different clue. Still, you have to admit there is something beautiful in the discovery that NAIL and SNAP can be clued by the same clue in very different ways!

Back in the days when we edited the puzzles for The Enigma (the monthly publication of the National Puzzlers’ League), we were once discussing this topic with fellow puzzler Guy Jacobson (a k a Xemu in the NPL). When we said, “It is interesting to come across a cryptic clue that correctly yields two different answers,” he took that as a challenge. He teamed up with Kevin Wald (Ucaoimhu), and together they created this cryptic tour de force, a 5-by-5 word square with the same clues—but different answers!—reading across and down.

CLUES
1 Spaniard’s article and subsequently the device for spinning and throwing
2 Like bird without no bloom
3 One thing that makes two-steps awkward: dirt enveloping hindmost extremity?
4 Handle portion of “bushel” verse
5 Topless lady’s husband at emergency room is put into a list, perhaps

This very unique puzzle, and another one like it, are included in the National Puzzlers’ League Cryptic Crosswords book, which is available for free download at the organization’s website.

After writing these posts, we came across a post on the same issue by British cryptic blogger Alan Connor. He draws a connection between ambiguity in clues and the larger question of whether the focus of this pastime is solving clues or filling in grids—and then goes on to correlate that, rather whimsically, with a solver’s choice of pen or pencil as a writing implement. His theory is that a commitment to unambiguous clues—a belief that a clue is only solved when it is solved without any doubt—leaves solvers free to write in pen; pencil-users, on the other hand, are open to ambiguities (not to mention the possibilities of their own errors). Who knows, he may be on to something!

How do you feel about clues with more than one answer? 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.

Syndicate content