The Long and Short of It

The Long and Short of It

Keeping clues concise—and sometimes not


When it comes to cryptic clues, we are devotees of the old adage from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Eschew needless words.” There’s no need to adopt a clipped or telegraphic style—clues should read as naturally as normal prose, more or less—but there’s no room in a clue for any words that aren’t actually contributing to the clueing process. And we’re always happy for an excuse to repeat the classic witticism of the British constructor Ximenes, who said that a cryptic clue should contain three things: (1) a definition, (2) wordplay and (3) nothing else.

The result is that our clues tend to be shorter than those of some other constructors—especially those of our predecessor, Frank Lewis, who would often embellish the basic workings of a clue with whimsical asides. But when there’s a reason to run long, we do, and we try to do it without sacrificing the integrity of the clue.

The most common cause of long clues in our puzzles actually has nothing to do with the general process of clue-writing. That’s when we need to use a particular clue’s verbal real estate to advertise a puzzle’s theme. For instance:

DAMASCENE  A crazy retrospective: stage located in a Middle Eastern capital—like the 2008 summit of the Arab League (all of whose members are here) (9)

NOBEL PRIZE  Jumbled bronze pile that’s been given to ten writers (counting carefully) whose names appear as complete answers in this puzzle (5,5)

Often, a clue will spread out if it involves a definition that is more than simply a dictionary synonym. For instance:

UVULA  Say, you have… you will… uh… something hanging down the back of your throat (5)

GALLUP POLL  Loudly ride fast, either north or south—that’s one way to find out what people are thinking (6,4)

SKINNER BOX  Hide Ecstasy in Bronx bughouse—it’s useful for distributing rewards and punishments (7,3)

Sometimes, we just can’t find a concise wordplay strategy. This one, for instance—although it doesn’t look that hard to clue—had us beating our heads for days. Finally we just decided to make a comic allusion to our difficulty:

SOUL MUSIC  Genre that Aretha Franklin helped popularize in order that Albert Einstein’s hometown is supported by uranium (really—that’s not a typo) (4,5)

Occasionally, both wordplay and definition seem to want to stretch out:

NETIQUETTE  When mentioning the Nutmeg State, don’t pronounce the first syllable and DON’T SHOUT LIKE THIS, for instance (10)

Finally, an &lit. clue sometimes requires extra space to work:

EURASIA  Where Ural largely exists (toward the west), between the capital of England and the far end of China! (7)

We close with this wonderful clue by Roger Wolff, whose solution is left to the reader:

Starting to ramble unendingly, never omitting natter, like this clue, which seems to continue forever, with way too many clauses, and dragging the solver into despair, or possibly amusement (which the author hopes), wondering if and when it will ever end (3-2)

What are your thoughts about concision and prolixity in cryptic 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.

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