“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.