To the uninitiated cryptic crosswords can seem baffling but rest assured, there are definite formulas and ‘rules’ for the construction of the clues, which can be learned and improved with practice. Cryptic clues have an elegant cleverness to them, and the untangling of them is enormously satisfying once you understand how they work.
If you are keen to learn how to solve cryptics, I’d suggest starting with easy ones, as the tricky ones can be extremely obscure. If possible, have the solution beside you, as when you are learning you may find it helpful to work backwards, starting with the answer and then looking at the clue to see how it was achieved.
Most cryptic clues contain two parts: a literal clue and the cryptic clue. The literal clue almost always appears at the beginning or end of the clue. The cryptic part will generally be some form of wordplay, and sometimes more than one. Some of the main forms of wordplay are listed below. Punctuation should be ignored, as it is often used to deliberately mislead the reader.
The use of abbreviations and symbols are common:
About - re or c (for circa)
Nothing, ring, love or zero - O
Hundred - C, Fifty - L, Five - V, etc
Points or direction - N, S, E or W
Artist - RA (for Royal Academy)
Soldier - GI
Queen - ER
Criminal - CON
Railway - RY
Soft - p (for piano)
Loud - f (for forte)
Note - musical notes A-G
….and so on. When I was first learning, I stored these kinds of clues alphabetically in a small address book.
Words in the clue like drunk, broken, muddled, fresh or maybe suggest an anagram.
Break into bar’s uglier brawl = burglarise
Nitre perhaps put into the ground = inter
Words like flip or return, or lifted or turned up for down clues, suggest that a word should be spelled backwards.
Physician brings a fish around = cod (doc backwards)
Animal going around a shopping centre = llama (a mall backwards)
Dropped, cut or heartless suggest that a letter has been deleted from a word. Headless or endless indicate letters at the beginning or end are missing.
The beginning of a mechanical man with no heart = root (robot with the middle letter deleted).
Crime results when clergyman loses his head = arson (parson - p)
Declares a piece of poetry unfinished = avers (a verse minus the last letter)
The cryptic parts of the clue add up to give the answer.
First class, by way of train, is for the birds = aviary (first class = A, way = via, train = ry for railway)
Everyone was in debt - that's permitted = allowed (all + owed)
Words like held in or hugged suggest that one word is hidden in another.
Relative entering a Highland dance is showing off = flaunting (aunt in fling)
Book where poor bard turned into poor journalist = hardback (poor bard is an anagram, inserted into hack for poor journalist)
Found in, buried, inside or fragment indicate that the answer is hidden within two or more words.
A daisy-like flower found in monasteries = aster
Environmentally inclusive metallic element = iron
Hide in Arthur's kingdom = skin (here 'hide' is the literal clue, as well as the hidden word indicator - clever!)
In these clues, both parts of the clue are literal clues.
Sound of a band = ring
Illegally take from a buccaneer = pirate
In these clues the cryptic clue sounds like the answer. Words like I hear or sounds like suggest a homophone.
Expensive animal, by the sound of it = dear / deer
Traveller is much more handsome, some say = wayfarer / way fairer (the some say hints at slang)
First letter acronyms
Start of or initial may indicate an acronym
Starts as sore, troubling your eye = stye
Black and white lamb starts to cry = bawl
The clue, or part of it, reads like a riddle. A clue that ends with a question mark is likely to be a riddle or a play on words.
Succeed – but not at horse riding = come off
Some human ones are canine = teeth
Do those using it walk to work? = treadmill
Get the idea? There are plenty of websites with additional clues and tutorials for more instruction. This one is particularly good, and was the source of some of the examples listed above. The Guardian also has an extensive series on solving cryptics. The Cryptic Crossword app has good beginner puzzles, with the ability to reveal letters or words if you get stuck: it's available for Android and iPhones. Happy puzzling!