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Word Salad

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

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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.

Fairly Unique?

“We were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn’t one good mixer in the bunch.”
        —J. D. Salinger

We found this quote in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. The M-W lexicographers explain that it is perfectly correct to qualify “unique,” as we did in the title to this post, when the word is being used in the sense of “unusual.” Of course, when it is used in its original sense of “the only one,” it would make no sense to say “somewhat unique,” “fairly unique,” or “very unique.”

Many cryptic aficionados believe that a cryptic clue should have a single answer, which is indicated unambiguously. The answer, in other words, should be “unique” in the original sense, whether or not the clue is “unique” in the sense of “unusual.” By and large, as the creators of the Nation puzzle, we agree. (As an individual solver, one of us has no problem with ambiguous clues, as long as the ambiguity is checked by a crossing word.)

This is not a concern in American-style crosswords, where it is common to have one clue point to multiple possible answers. In that context, the fact that every letter is checked—i.e., that it is part of two different words, running across and down—allows the solver to decide which answer is correct. But in a cryptic crossword, up to half of the letters could be unchecked, so an ambiguous clue is more problematic.

There are a couple of clue types in which this issue arises particularly often, the most common one being a reversal. It is entirely possible to come up with a clue that does not make clear which of the two possibilities should be entered into the diagram—in fact, it often takes active effort on the constructor’s part to avoid ambiguous reversal clues.

For example (in a down clue):
   Place of exile upset expert (4)
Depending on which word is reversed, the answer could be ABLE or ELBA. The fix involves making sure that the reversal indicator (in this case, “upset”) is at the start or end of the clue rather than in the middle; that way there is no question which word it applies to. This clue could be rewritten as:
   Northbound expert’s place of exile (4)
Now the answer is unambiguously ELBA.

Likewise, some homophone clues run this risk:
   Slides echo photographs (6)
The answer could be CHUTES or SHOOTS. The clue could be rewritten this way to remove the ambiguity:
   Slides and photographs as part of a lecture (6)

There are also occasions on which much wider ambiguities can arise. More on that in our next blog post.

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.

Incomplete Wordplay

About a year ago, while puttering around in our cryptic lab, we stumbled across an idea that we didn’t recall having seen before—at least not in quite the form we ended up adopting. We were working on Puzzle #3260, and we faced a bit of a challenge in clueing the theme entries. All of them were reduplicated phrases—BUDDY-BUDDY, WALLA WALLA, LANG LANG and so on—and although the definitions were perfectly straightforward, the wordplay part was not. How do you handle an entry so clogged with repeated letters? Sure, we could do one as a letter bank—WALLA WALLA, for instance, banks nicely down to LAW—but that would still have left a half-dozen other theme entries that were equally intractable.

The solution was both simple and effective: we included wordplay for half of the answer only. So WALLA WALLA was clued by
   Everything can be found in Washington city (5,5) [W(ALL)A]
and BORA-BORA by
   Island to the west—a steal (4-4) [A ROB rev.]

As we generally do, we included one entry (DOUBLE VISION) to flag the presence of the theme, and to hint at the fact that there was something unusual about some of the clues. The clue for that had standard wordplay, but we packed the definition with enough information to help the solver deduce how the thematic clues worked:
   For the most part, suspect with jeans on, having one perceptual quirk that would
   help solve seven otherwise flawed clues in this puzzle (6,6)

And that might have been the end of it—except that Puzzle #3289 later showed up with a theme that turned out to be conducive to similar treatment. It wasn’t obvious to us right away, and on the first pass we tried to clue the theme entries with standard techniques. But as in the earlier puzzle, they all shared a common element that could be dropped from the wordplay without denying the solver critical information. (The solution is already posted on the Nation website, but we’ll avoid any further spoilers for the time being.)

What this suggests is that there’s a whole new area of theme-based wordplay waiting to be explored. This kind of thing is familiar in variety cryptics, where twists on the wordplay process—for example, having the wordplay lead to the answer plus one extraneous letter—are often done. But in the sort of black-square cryptics that we do for The Nation, leaving some of the wordplay to be supplied by the theme is not common at all.

And it’s especially useful here, because the theme entries are often fairly long—and long entries can be the trickiest to clue. Except in cases that lend themselves to smooth charades or containers, clues for long entries often wind up as massive anagrams or Rube Goldberg contraptions, when a solver would prefer something more straightforward. Incomplete wordplay, with thematic connections picking up the slack, is a fine way to make that happen— and it makes for a fun change of pace as well. You can expect to see this ploy used again in upcoming puzzles.

What is your reaction to incomplete wordplay in themed puzzles? Please share your thoughts 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.

Capital Gains

As we’ve discussed before, there are plenty of opportunities for a cryptic clue writer to bend the rules of grammar and orthography in order to deceive solvers. In the early years of American cryptics, “Disregard punctuation” was often a standard warning affixed to puzzles, and solvers today know, for example, that a comma can break up a unitary phrase without violating the underlying cryptic reading. We’ve gone even further in some of our clues by joining separate words into a single compound—using “forefront” to indicate the letter F, for instance, and sometimes even eliding the word break between the two halves of a clue.

Yet there’s one rule that seems to remain constant and impervious to tweaking—at least by us—and it has to do with capitalization. For all our willingness to push the limits in other areas, we haven’t yet worked up the nerve to use “Polish” to mean “polish,” or “curt” to mean the pitcher Curt Schilling (for that matter, we wouldn’t conflate him with the former Austrian currency either).

Why not? Well, because capitalization is really part of a word’s spelling, which means it defines the difference between two words. “Polish” and “polish” are distinct linguistic entities, so we don’t use them interchangeably.

(Parenthetically, a different but related issue arose recently when we had to clue the word TAIPAN in Puzzle 3278. Our original clue was “In China, a foreign businessman busted piñata,” but we subsequently decided that “taipan” and “piñata” weren’t truly anagrams. So we changed the clue to “In China, a foreign businessman damaged patina”—a less smooth surface but a sounder clue.)

Still, the fact that an uncapitalized word and its capitalized counterpart are different doesn’t bar a constructor from using one as a decoy for the other. You just have to be tricky about it.

The time-honored method is to put the word at the beginning of the clue. Since every clue begins with a capital letter by convention (well, except for that clue we wrote one time about k.d. lang), the solver can’t tell the difference between “Polish” and “polish” if you start the clue that way.

Occasionally, that lets us clue a proper name as though it were a common noun. For instance:
   CATFISH  Hunter fit poorly in capital (7)

But the reverse is much more common, a clue in which a common noun is masquerading as a proper name. Here are a few examples:
   HAIRDO  Bob, for one, is rigorous about intelligence operations up front (6)
   HIJACK  Rob greeting John familiarly (6)
   SMASHING  Carol, about long-running TV show: “It’s first-rate” (8)
   TABOO  Bill loves that which is forbidden (5)
   UNGUARDED  Frank’s guru and mystic: Ed (9)

As you can see, every one of those clues starts with the name in question. It’s a constraint that lends structure to our clue-writing—which is the kind of constraint we like best.

What are your thoughts on the relations between capitalized and uncapitalized words? Please share your thoughts 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.

From Point A to Point B (Part II)

[This is a continuation of our response to a comment from John, a regular solver of our puzzles.]

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our predecessor Frank Lewis’s puzzles was his frequent use of multiword phrases—some of them very long—and his punny clues for them. Here are some examples along these lines from our own short tenure:

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE Part of home stereo system for politician (7,2,3,5)

MOTHER-OF-PEARL Hester Prynne’s nacre (6-2-5)

CHARACTER STRING Letter sequence in an old joke, one that concludes with “I’m a frayed knot” (9,6)

ONE-NIGHT STAND  Single piece of furniture’s hookup (3,5,5)

PORT AUTHORITY Where you might find a bus—or a sommelier? (4,9)

ORGAN RECITAL  What you might hear in church: “liver, kidneys, pancreas…” (5,7)

ROCKET SCIENTIST Arugula expert? You don’t have to be one to make a salad (6,9)

What is interesting about these clues, and clues like them, is that they often generate an enthusiastic response from some solvers, while simultaneously triggering condemnation from others. As La Fontaine said: “He’s crazy in the head, he who pretends to satisfy everyone—and his father too.”

…freedom from rules to be clever…

It is true that we award ourselves that freedom, and perhaps we are delusional in thinking we can make that call. However, that is not what is under consideration here. The prohibition on breaking up a phrase or compound word A+B into A and B is not a rule. Rather, it is a subsidiary to the etymological taboo that is a convention among many US constructors—a convention we usually respect. But that taboo is ignored routinely by, for example, Richard Maltby in the Harper’s puzzle. Cox and Rathvon, who are less rigid than their disciples, violate it on occasion (we cited one such case in a comment on our post on the etymological taboo). Another violator of this so-called rule is free spirit Henry Hook, who once brilliantly clued I STAND CORRECTED with a reference to orthopedic shoes!

US cryptics are a small minority of the world’s cryptics, and this strictly American taboo is not a rule anywhere else. John does not have to agree with us on this, but we stand with the majority of cryptic constructors worldwide.

…lazy excuses to be less clever and not to scrutinize his own clues…

Perhaps we’re heretics, and perhaps we’re not any fun, but lazy we’re not. We do a lot of scrutinizing for each clue. We have outlined our construction process before and will not review it here, except to say that we edit each other’s clues, and incorporate input from not one or two, but sometimes up to a dozen test solvers. We know we are occasionally pushing the US cryptic envelope, and thus we appreciate feedback from solvers, as it helps us calibrate our experiments. We also know that, even though our departures from tradition are few and far between, we risk offending traditionalists. We don’t take this lightly, as some of our best friends are traditionalists, but we prioritize entertainment over conformity, and where the muse leads, we will follow.

am I seeing a few clues that are new lows?

Clues that actually do not work are unlikely in The Nation puzzle, given our process. We encourage John and any solvers who don’t understand some of our clues to look up Braze’s detailed dissection of them, which appears on the Monday or Tuesday following online publication of the puzzle, and thus is posted well before the hard copy magazine reaches you.

Do you appreciate our occasional punny 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.

From Point A to Point B (Part I)

A regular solver of the Nation puzzle writes:

I know I’ll never win with the Nation defense of clues that parse A + B words or syllables as simply A + B. What they see as freedom from rules to be clever, on which I’d agree totally in principle, I see as lazy excuses to be less clever and not to scrutinize his own clues. (Everyone thinks his own jokes are funny.) And there are at least two such in long down answers in No. 3271. But am I seeing a few clues that are new lows?

Clearly, this solver—let’s call him John—is frustrated with our puzzles. We may in fact never win him over. But let us try to clarify our stance in response to his comments.

Parsing A + B words as simply A + B

Long multiword entries are somewhat rare in US cryptics, in part because many constructors agree with John. (By long, let’s say twelve letters or longer.) In a long entry, the likelihood of a reversal is nil. The likelihood of a hidden word or double definition is very low. The likelihood of a homophone, container or charade is fairly low. So if you rule out parsing A + B entries as A + B, the inevitable result is that you are almost always reduced to using an anagram. We’ve written before about our reluctance to use long anagrams. (In a nutshell: they’re trivial for the constructor, and laborious for the solver.) That said, when we can find a good way to clue A + B without breaking it up as A + B, we do it. We even resign ourselves to long anagrams on occasion. Here are some examples from past puzzles:

A rare long hidden word, totally John-kosher:
   ERIC ALTERMAN  Nation columnist captivated by chimerical term: “Antineoliberalism” (4,8)

A rare long homophone, which nevertheless probably violates John’s sensibilities since AND BARREL are separate:
   LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL  Totally overheard: conversation concerning smoked fish and mineral (4,5,3,6)
   [“lox, talk and beryl”]

A nearly but not quite John-acceptable charade:
   MEET FACE TO FACE  Proper side of expert seen in alternative to Skype (4,4,2,4)
   [MEET + FACET + OFT + ACE]

Two long, perfectly John-legitimate anagrams:
   ST PAUL MINNESOTA  Pastel mountains crumbled in state capital (2,4,9)
   TITUS ANDRONICUS  Unsound artistic interpretation in play by Shakespeare (5,10)

A double-double definition:
   NAIL POLISH Some paint is secure, coming from Krakow (4,6)
The John-worthiness of this last clue is open to question. On the one hand, it breaks the answer phrase into its component parts. On the other hand, each part is clued by a perfectly unobjectionable double definition (NAIL/NAIL, POLISH/POLISH). Does the concatenation of two legitimate clues make the result illegitimate?

Of course, there are many examples where we combine an anagram with some other device, as in this example:
   BACHELOR’S DEGREE  German composer with horrible greed, or else evidence of a college education (9,6)

We’ve also used nontraditional rebus clues for long entries.

But there’s more to say on this. Many, many multiword phrases include short components such as OF THE and AND. We’ve broken up OF THE as OFT HE once or twice, as in this example:
   STATE OF THE ART  Announce frequently: “Love is on the cutting edge” (5,2,3,3)
   [STATE + OFT + HEART]

But obviously that’s not always possible, and it would get boring fast. Likewise, there are only so many ways to deal with AND. Here is one:
   FIRST AND FOREMOST  Taking priority can be a way to do things in woods, behind a conifer-covered area (5,3,8)
   [FIR STAND + FORE(M.O.)ST]

In general, however, we have decided we’d rather allow ourselves to clue “A of the B” as “A of the B,” or “A and B” as “A and B.” We prefer not to turn our back on this sort of multiword phrase. Why should those only be available to American-style crossword constructors?

We’ll have more to say on this subject in our next post.

Are you concerned about clues that break along word boundaries? How do you feel about multiword entries? 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.

This Post Is Not About Itself

In our previous blog post we discussed various strategies for defining crossword entries, including simple synonyms, puns or jokes, and general pointers toward the relevant attributes of the answer. But we left out one of our favorite strategies, which is a clue that defines a word by reference to the clue itself.

For example, a clue can be written in a particular form or with specific verbal constraints that exemplify the answer. Our first endeavor along these lines was this one:
   HAIKU  Recited aloud, an exalted, brilliant stroke—this clue, for instance (5)

More recently, we clued INVERSE thus:
   Like “false” to “true,”
   Or like this clue (7)

A clue can also make reference to the type of wordplay it uses. That can happen either in the definition part:
   CHARADE  Drink later. First, burn this clue (7)
or in the wordplay:
   HINT  Harsh interrogation yields “It’s a hidden-word clue” (4)

Still another type of self-reference is one that simply invokes the existence of the puzzle itself, or the process that the solver is involved with. For example:
   CLUE  This signal left within (4)
   SOLVE  What you’re trying to do, primarily: send love all about (5)

This is not a technique that can be used very often, mostly because there aren’t that many words that can describe a crossword clue, and to a lesser extent because it’s a trick that would be spoiled by overuse. But whenever there’s an opportunity to bring this into play—when a grid entry suggests some quality or attribute that a clue might display—we generally consider the possibility.

For solvers, self-reference can be double-edged. On the one hand, it’s generally easy to spot—the phrase “this clue” is almost always present, and almost always a giveaway. On the other hand, any kind of self-referential wordplay has the potential to be a little mind-bending.

Which brings us to our favorite kind of self-reference, one that involves planting a deliberate flaw in the wordplay of a clue. Here are two examples:
   ERRORLESS  Sorry, reels got tangled up—unlike this clue (9)
   INCORRECT  …in baroque concert, like this clue? (9)
(The ellipsis in that latter clue was there to join its surface to that of the preceding clue; see this post.)

These are clues (there’s another one in Puzzle 3285 which we won’t spoil here) that flirt with the famous paradox of Epimenides, the Cretan who declared that all Cretans were liars—including, by implication, himself. The clues only work… because they don’t.

What are your thoughts on self-referential clues? Please share your thoughts 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.

Definitely!

In a recent post, we addressed the issue of definition by example, but this is not the only issue facing us when choosing a definition. Here are some other considerations.

A given entry may be correctly defined in many ways, from the obvious to the more deceptive. We will usually avoid obscure definitions, but even then, there are still many choices. To define CHAIR, for example, we might use “piece of furniture,” “seat,” “facilitator,” “position of authority,” “professorship,” “preside” and so on. We usually choose the definition that helps us get the best surface reading.

Because a clue also includes wordplay, a definition need not be super-specific. For example, this would be overkill: “A piece of furniture on which one person sits, often with four legs and a back, sometimes part of a dining room set or placed behind a desk.” But just how vague can we go? Fairness is in part determined by context: How difficult is the wordplay? How difficult are the clues to the crossing words? How difficult is the puzzle as a whole? What do solvers of this particular puzzle expect? Any notion of a fair definition must acknowledge these questions.

And in fact, the definition part of a clue need not even be a definition, just as long as it points the solver in the direction of the answer. Here are two examples from past Nation puzzles:
   UNPROVABLE  A burp: novel, miraculous, like the existence of God (10)
   QUASIMODO  He had a hunch involving somewhat tragic doom (9)

Especially as part of a double definition, a definition can be an attempt at humor, often based on a literal or unexpected reading of the answer. For example:
   PANTRY  Where they store food, or where they make trousers? (6)
   STERNLY  With a serious demeanor—like a famed violinist? (7)
Such jokey definitions are usually indicated with a question mark.

There are some definitions that have become cryptic clichés, such as “sing” for SNITCH or RAT, “worker” or “colony member” for ANT and “flower” for any river. Those are hard for a constructor to resist, and entertaining to new solvers, but after a while they lose their novelty. We try to use those sparingly.

Naturally, the definition’s part of speech must match the entry’s. No defining a noun with an adjective! (Although of course we love using words whose part of speech is ambiguous, as that helps us mislead you.) A good test of the validity and fairness of a definition is “can one substitute the definition for the entry in a sentence?” If not, we must rethink the clue. And from a solver’s point of view, if your answer fails that substitution test, then chances are you don’t yet have the right answer.

Have you come across some memorably tricky definitions? 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.

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