A solver recently wrote to express confusion over this clue from Puzzle #3316:
CHEER Coming back, get to loud ovation (5)
He understood, he said, that the clue was intended as a phonetic reversal: "reach" ("get to") read backwards ("coming back") to yield "cheer." But what was there in the clue to indicate that the reversal was phonetic?
A quick glance at the clue with fresh eyes was enough to reveal the source of his perplexity. Our solver was taking "loud ovation," quite plausibly, as the definition part of the clue; our intention was that "ovation" alone would suffice, leaving "loud" as the phonetic indicator. This was a misstep on our part. A more carefully crafted clue would have—and should have—eliminated that ambiguity.
But as it happens, this minor glitch did throw some light on an often-overlooked aspect of cryptic clues: Namely, the need for a certain amount of parsimony in the definitions. Even though a definition can be long-winded—and heaven knows we've written some wordy ones over the years—it should never risk spilling over into the wordplay part of the clue. It's bad form, in other words, to leave any doubt on the solver's part about where the definition ends and the wordplay begins (or vice versa).
Note that we're talking here about a clue that's already been solved, because up to that point, the constructor's goal is to keep the solver bamboozled. But although the location of the break can be hidden, it should never be ambiguous.
What that means in practice is that a definition generally shouldn't include words that aren't strictly necessary (and thus might plausibly be part of the wordplay) and moreover, that the wordplay shouldn't place words next to the definition that might plausibly be part of it. That was the weakness in our CHEER clue.
However, we retain the right to try to mislead solvers, as long as we do it on the up-and-up. This clue, for example, drew criticism from some unwary solvers:
SMETANA Inside, Brahms met an Austrian composer (7)
More than one person wrote to object that Smetana was Bohemian, not Austrian. But in this case, "composer" was the sum total of the definition, and "Austrian" part of the wordplay. So the clue, though tricky, was legitimate and unambiguous—because the wordplay requires the A from Austrian, and especially because the definition cannot include "Austrian" and still be correct.
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