Learn how to solve cryptic crosswords with Denise Sutherland!

by |March 22, 2021
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For 30 years For Dummies books have been transforming complex concepts into the easy-to-understand, and Booktopia is spending this month celebrating this amazing book series. Today, we have Denise Sutherland on the blog to share her top tips for cryptic crosswords, all taken from her book, Solving Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies. Read on!

Denise Sutherland

Denise Sutherland

How to Solve a Cryptic Crossword

Ah, cryptic crosswords. Is there a more perplexing puzzle in existence? Here are some insights on how they work, and how to make a start on one.

Basically, each clue is a tiny puzzle, (almost) always consisting of a definition (like any regular crossword clue) and some wordplay. The definition and the wordplay should give the same answer. 

Here’s an example:

Crooked crêpe dish cracks (9)

In this clue, the wordplay section is at the start: Crooked crêpe dish. The definition is at the end: cracks.

The letter indicator (9) tells you that the answer is nine letters long. Notice that crêpe dish is also nine letters long.

Crooked is a word that indicates this is an anagram (any word which gives a sense of something being upset, unusual, moving, jumbled or even drunk can be an anagram indicator).

So, what happens if you jumble up the letters of crêpe dish? You get DECIPHERS — which can be defined as cracks (as in cracking a puzzle, which you just did!).

So, reading this clue as a set of instructions you get: A crooked version of the letters of crêpe dish gives you a word that means cracks. Both the wordplay and the definition lead to the word DECIPHERS. Ta dah!

Almost all cryptic clues have a pattern of Wordplay + Definition = Answer, or Definition + Wordplay = Answer. The definition won’t ever be sandwiched between different parts of the wordplay.

Cryptic wordplay includes things like:

  • anagrams (jumbled up letters)
  • deletions (deleting letters from a word)
  • containers (putting letters inside words)
  • hidden words (answers in plain sight in the clue)
  • double definitions (two different definitions for a word).

The surface reading of the clue (e.g. thinking about an actual crooked crêpe dish cracking) is there to mislead you. Try to look at each word in the clue in isolation and read it as a set of instructions. Ignore the punctuation!

When you’re starting on a cryptic crossword, look for the longest words in the grid — these are often clued as anagrams (which tend to be a bit easier to solve). Also, very short clues might be double definition clues (for example, Delightful French city (4) = NICE. Nice means delightful and is also a French city).

Finally, abbreviations are used a lot in cryptics as the setter often needs to indicate one or two letters. These might be country codes, chemical symbols, the NATO phonetic alphabet, sporting abbreviations, musical notations, or a host of others — so it’s useful to have a list of abbreviations to refer to.

My book, Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies, explains how to solve each type of clue in detail, including the less common types, with lots of examples. It has abbreviation lists, lists of indicators, lots of tips, and simple cryptic crosswords to solve with hints for each clue to help you get started. You can find me, and new cryptic clues, on my Facebook page.

Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies by Denise Sutherland (Wiley) is out now.

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Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummiesby Denise Sutherland

Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies

by Denise Sutherland

The cryptic crossword world … explained!

Even expert crossword-solvers struggle with cryptics. The clues can often seem nonsensical, mysterious and infuriating, but finally cracking them is immensely satisfying. Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies is designed to help even the most casual crossword lover master these mental feats of gymnastics. Packed with clear explanations, helpful hints, and practice crosswords, the book explains how to approach these problems in a clear and logical manner, providing hints on identifying the clues and tips on how to solve them...

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  • Pix

    March 24, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    I never knew there was an actual system! What an interesting puzzle. I’ve always wondered what they were and never really understood. Thanks for this awesome information. Perhaps I should attempt a cryptic crossword or two myself.

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