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.


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.


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.


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.