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.