In a previous post, we discussed the views of (London’s) Sunday Times cryptic crossword editor Peter Biddlecombe on the possibility of cryptic clues in which the definition is neither at the beginning nor at the end. Today, we respond to his ideas about “defining by example.” He writes:

Many setters and editors insist that you must indicate “definition by example‚” when you use it. They would never use “Alsatian‚” alone for DOG, but would use something like “Alsatian?‚”“Alsatian, perhaps‚” or “I may be Alsatian.” Keeping a long story short, although lots of people work this way, I can see no compelling logical reason for doing so.

We take a middle position on this issue. Some years ago, in our roles as cryptic editors for The Enigma, we were convinced that defining by example was no more useful in a cryptic clue than it is in a dictionary. If you look up “dog” in Webster’s, the definition is not “Alsatian” or “setter”—it defines “dog” as “a domesticated mammal,” a broader group of which “dog” is a member. So a clue that uses an example from a larger group should indicate that it’s going in the other direction; in addition to the indicators suggested by Biddlecombe, one might use “Alsatian, for one,” “Alsatian, say,” or just “Alsatian, for example.”

In general we’re still reluctant to define by example, but we have become more flexible in some situations. Continuing in the realm of zoology, for example, we would probably accept “ai” as a definition for SLOTH, simply because we don’t know any other sloths (and suspect that solvers don’t either). In fact, we were encouraged in loosening up our practice in this arena when we saw that Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, the unofficial king and queen of US crypticdom, had used “snail” to define GASTROPOD.

A related issue is the use of first names to define last names, and vice versa. We wouldn’t use “John” to define DEERE, EDWARDS or WAYNE, because there are just too many Johns in the world, and the “no defining by example” guideline kicks in. But we might feel justified in using “John” to define LENNON, since this particular John is so often referred to by just his first name. And an unusual first name (such as “Zbigniew”) can surely be used to define the corresponding last name (BRZEZINSKI in this case) and likewise in the other direction (“Scowcroft” for BRENT, say).

In short, as with so much else, we see this as a judgment call. Our apologies to those solvers who prefer ironclad rules to flexible guidelines!

How do you feel about definitions in cryptic crosswords? 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.

Finally, a note about Puzzle #3278. There was a nearly invisible theme, which was noticed by Braze, the blogger we mention above, but was missed by every single one of our test solvers. About half the clues included a family member: daughter, aunt, nephew, son, etc. It was a somewhat gratuitous theme that did not affect solving, which explains why it was missed by so many. Kudos to Braze!