Grammatical Strictures

Grammatical Strictures

On the grammar and syntax of cryptic clues


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.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy