In our previous post, we discussed the possibility of ambiguous clues that don’t lead to a unique solution. Most commonly, these arise unintentionally when a reversal or homophone clue is arranged in a symmetrical fashion. In those cases, the ambiguity generally centers on determining which part of the clue is the definition and which is the wordplay.
There are also occasions—although they’re not particularly common—where two very different readings of a clue can yield two different answers. For example, we once included this clue in an early version of a puzzle:
Metal fastener is no trouble (4)
The intended solution was NAIL, but a test solver pointed out that the very same clue could be read differently, and clue SNAP. We decided to use a different clue. Still, you have to admit there is something beautiful in the discovery that NAIL and SNAP can be clued by the same clue in very different ways!
Back in the days when we edited the puzzles for The Enigma (the monthly publication of the National Puzzlers’ League), we were once discussing this topic with fellow puzzler Guy Jacobson (a k a Xemu in the NPL). When we said, “It is interesting to come across a cryptic clue that correctly yields two different answers,” he took that as a challenge. He teamed up with Kevin Wald (Ucaoimhu), and together they created this cryptic tour de force, a 5-by-5 word square with the same clues—but different answers!—reading across and down.
1 Spaniard’s article and subsequently the device for spinning and throwing
2 Like bird without no bloom
3 One thing that makes two-steps awkward: dirt enveloping hindmost extremity?
4 Handle portion of “bushel” verse
5 Topless lady’s husband at emergency room is put into a list, perhaps
This very unique puzzle, and another one like it, are included in the National Puzzlers’ League Cryptic Crosswords book, which is available for free download at the organization’s website.
After writing these posts, we came across a post on the same issue by British cryptic blogger Alan Connor. He draws a connection between ambiguity in clues and the larger question of whether the focus of this pastime is solving clues or filling in grids—and then goes on to correlate that, rather whimsically, with a solver’s choice of pen or pencil as a writing implement. His theory is that a commitment to unambiguous clues—a belief that a clue is only solved when it is solved without any doubt—leaves solvers free to write in pen; pencil-users, on the other hand, are open to ambiguities (not to mention the possibilities of their own errors). Who knows, he may be on to something!
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.