It is not uncommon among cryptic crossword fans to compare and contrast “British rules” with “American rules” for cryptic crosswords. But this terminology misses the mark. The truth is that cryptic crossword construction is not chess, and plays by no rulebook. It’s more like music—constraints are essential, but not every composer needs to adhere to the same ones!
A better way to think about this is that cryptic crosswords have evolved differently on the two sides of the Atlantic, and that in the process, different conventions have come into play. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that the world of British crosswords boasts a degree of internal variety that is almost wholly lacking in the United States.
A few weeks of attempting to solve the cryptics in one of the British dailies are enough to reveal profound differences among the various constructors (“setters,” as they say over there), and to highlight the different constraints each of them chooses to follow. The result is that solvers can develop preferences for one or another constructor, not unlike the situation we have here in standard (non-cryptic) crosswords.
In the United States, by contrast, cryptic conventions are so narrowly interpreted that clueing for black-square cryptics does not differ much from constructor to the next; for the most you would be hard-pressed to try to guess a puzzle’s constructor from its clues. The way the best constructors more often distinguish themselves is by their creativity in the design of variety cryptics, with geometric innovations (different types of diagrams), interesting themes and puzzle-specific wordplay variations. And yes, there are brilliant clues in US cryptics, but differences in style are narrow.
One consequence of this lack of variety is that some of our relatively modest departures from convention have been received by some solvers as serious violations. But judged against any standards except the restricted scope of American cryptics, our innovations have been relatively few and not especially revolutionary.
In fact, some ideas which we thought were bold and daring are actually old hat in the UK. Alan Connor’s crossword blog at The Guardian is a mind-opener for American cryptic fans. Here is an example (from his post on May 8). He had asked readers to submit cryptic clues for SCREAMO (“a subgenre of hardcore punk,” according to Wikipedia.) Connor’s comment about one submission:
“Does Cream offer an example? Yes and no” was pleasingly devious.
In a past post, we went to great lengths to explain—or perhaps defend—our clue for HERACLES, which has a similar structure ("He clears stable? No and yes (8)"). Across the pond, this structure not only does not require defending or explaining, it’s merely seen as “pleasingly devious.” Oh, to get to the day when this sort of flexibility is commonplace here in the US! It’s time to put the “play” back in “wordplay.”
Do you solve cryptics outside of The Nation? Do you have any thoughts on style and convention? 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.