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This post is not a puzzle. There is nothing puzzly hidden inside it or the self-answer, posted at the same time.

What exactly is a cryptic crossword clue, and how do I write one?

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    $\begingroup$ shouldnt this be meta? $\endgroup$ – lois6b Nov 23 '16 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ @lois6b: No. Meta is only for discussing the site itself. Questions about puzzles are perfectly fine here. $\endgroup$ – Deusovi Nov 23 '16 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ I am going to try and solve this riddle. It looks cool. $\endgroup$ – The Great Duck Nov 24 '16 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ Warning: shameless self-advertising ahead! But honestly, I think the some of the clues given in this puzzle (puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/44995/…) might be considered cryptic? $\endgroup$ – Xenocacia Nov 24 '16 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Xenocacia: Not quite. They don't really fit the pattern, and most of them don't have proper indicators. $\endgroup$ – Deusovi Nov 24 '16 at 15:46
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(Throughout this post, I will be using cryptic annotations in code blocks. The answer word is made up of all of the capital letters; the punctuation, lowercase letters, and spacing is a guide to help understand how the answer was derived from the clue.)


What is a cryptic clue?

A cryptic crossword clue is a phrase that leads to a single answer word through specific rules. Crosswords made of them (cryptic crosswords) are most common in Britain, but there are international publishers as well.

A cryptic clue has three parts:

  • a precise definition (acceptable in traditional "quick" crosswords)
  • a fair subsidiary indicator to the same answer (usually involving wordplay)
  • and nothing else.

Also, cryptic clues are almost always given with their enumeration: a string of numbers and punctuation inside parentheses giving away the lengths of the words in the answer, as well as how they're punctuated. The enumeration for the answer "JACK-O'-LANTERN" would be (4-1'-7), for instance.


Splitting

It must be possible to pick a point in the clue, then read the left and right parts as entirely separate clues. One is the definition; the other is the wordplay. There may be a word or phrase such as "or", "is", "and", "to be" indicating where the split is between definition and wordplay, but there often is not. The solver must figure out the location on their own.


Definition

The definition half of a cryptic clue must be one acceptable as a standalone clue in a standard crossword. This means it can be a single-word synonym of the answer word, or something far more complicated. It does, however, have to agree in tense, conjugation, pluralization, and other aspects with the answer word. This means "becomes taller" would not be a valid definition for "GROWING", but it would be a fine definition for "GROWS".


Wordplay

Wordplay is where cryptic clues get interesting. In the wordplay half, disguised instructions tell you how to transform and combine strings of letters to form your answer word. There are countless different ways to do the wordplay half, and creativity is encouraged. However, there are a few very common clue types that make up a majority of the cryptic clues seen today. (These clue types can be mixed and matched as long as the indicators are placed appropriately; here, I've given basic examples of all of the types.)

Double Definitions

A double definition is a simple clue type: the wordplay is another, definition for the same word. Some examples are:

European shine (6)

Mathematician snake (5)

Furniture for advisors (7)

Reindeer's infamous party (6)

which lead to POLISH, ADDER, CABINET, and DONNER. (The splits in the latter two are at "for" and "'s".)

Generally, the two definitions must be unrelated, or at least disconnected enough so that the answer is unambiguous.

Charades

Charades clues are also fairly simple: they just clue parts of the word independently. For instance, the clue

"French programming style is easily broken (7)"

clues FRAGILE: FR is an abbreviation for "French", and "agile" is a programming style. These, put together, make FRAGILE, a word for "easily broken".

Another example is the clue

"Journey for particles leads to issues (9)"

which clues QUEST+IONS. Here the split is at "leads to". (This is allowed because the wordplay leads to the definition. It can't just be an arbitrary word.)

These pieces can sometimes be abbreviated. Abbreviations are discussed below.

Reversals

In reversal clues, all or part of a word is reversed. This must be indicated with a word that suggests inversion, or a leftward direction. Common indicators include "back","overturned", "left", "sent back", "revolutionary", "flipped", and many others.

Some examples of reversal clues are:

Circle back to reservoir (4)

Left shaken-up smoothies and cakes, for two (8)

Cleans up backward servant with some poultry (8)

cluing POOL<, DESSERTS<, and (FRES<)+HENS. Note that clue types can be combined, as in the last one.

Extractions

In extractions, pieces are taken from the clue itself. There are a few different types: the most common one is the acrostic, where a clue spells out its answer with some of the first letters. For instance:

Traveller nearly overlooked Mom and Dad at first (5)

clues NOMAD. The definition is "traveller", and "at first" tells you to take the first letters of the previous words.

Extraction clues can also apply to only a single word. For instance, the clue:

Speech about pig's head and flower (5)

could clue P+ROSE.

You can also have clues where other letters are taken. For instance, "feet" and "tail" can clue final letters ("horse's tail" → E), and "heart" and center can clue middle letters ("heart of stone" → O). There are also clues that use the words "odd" or "even" (or variants like "evens out") to clue every other letter in a given phrase. You can make it more complicated too:

Local puzzler rants, "Die, altar horse!" with both feet cut off (4,2'4)

leads to the answer RAND AL'THOR after removing the last two letters ("both feet") of RAN(ts) D(ie) ALT(ar) HOR(se).

Another type of extraction clue is the "hidden word" clue. This type involves a word hidden inside a phrase inside the clue. The easiest way to understand this clue type is by example:

Ambassador Ichigo conceals column of a sort (5)

Chief, if angered, hides game (4)

Burning bush - other kept secret (3)

Those clues contain DORIC, FIFA, and HOT in places indicated by the answer words. ("Ambassador Ichigo", for instance.) This clue type can be combined with others, but typically is not. The full word must be extracted from the clue if this is the case.

Abbreviations

Abbreviations are commonly used in cryptic clues to clue 1-3 letters. There are many different cryptic abbreviations - here are just a few:

  • Roman numerals
  • Chemical element symbols
  • Country codes
  • Phonetic alphabets ("Bravo" → B)
  • Chess notation
  • Point → N, S, E, or W (compass points)
  • Carbon → C
  • Velocity → V
  • Street → ST
  • Doctor → MD
  • Pound → LB
  • Love → O (as in tennis)
  • America → US, USA
  • Club → Y (the YMCA's nickname)
  • Ring → O (shape)

There are many, many more. The Wikipedia page contains a fairly comprehensive list of them, some of which are region-specific.

Containers and Deletions

Containers and deletions are exactly what they sound like. In a container, one word (or string of letters) is put inside another. In a deletion, one or more letters is removed from a string. For instance:

Summing up obsession heartlessly (8)

Entertainer is most grating without tail (4)

Told about mouthpiece having a brain (8)

clue ADDI(-c)TION, HO(-arse)ST, and RE(MIND)ED. Individual letters or larger strings can be added and removed. Reversals and other more complicated clues are also allowed - for instance, REMINDED could have been clued as "DENIM backwards, without E, inserted into REED".

Containers are typically clued with words such as "about", "around", "surrounding", "outside", "inside", "having", and "held". Grammatically, the container clue should indicate which word goes inside the other one.

Deletions are typically clued with words such as "losing", "taken (away)", "cutting", "not", "erased", and "dropping out". Sometimes, deletions can indicate position of what to be taken away rather than the letters themselves. In that case, clues are words like

"beheaded", "first off", "needing no introduction" (for the first letter);
"curtailed", "abridged", "falling short" (for the last letter(s));
"unlimited", "losing margins" (for both letters); "cored", "disheartened", and "hollow" (for middle letters).

Sound Clues

There are two common types of sound clues: homophones and spoonerisms. Homophones are exactly what they sound like: they clue a homophone of the word.

Reported quality level for fruit (6)

I heard celebrity was lazy (4)

These two clues give the solutions "CARROT" and "IDLE".

Homophones are indicated with words or phrases suggesting sound: for instance, "to the audience", "over the phone", "overheard", "they said", and "to the ear".

The spoonerism clue is similar. A "spoonerism", named after Reverend William Spooner, is a transposal of the starting sounds of two words in a phrase. For instance, the spoonerism of "nook and cranny" is "crook and nanny". Two examples of this type are:

Spooner's cheerful enthusiast? He'll get you across (8)

Spooner's pet's entry to working-class symbol (4,3)

which lead to FERRYMAN (from "merry fan") and FLAT CAP (from "cat flap").

Spoonerisms are almost always clued with phrases including the word "Spooner", or more rarely, a capitalized "Reverend".

The above two examples were taken from The Guardian.

Anagrams

Anagram clues are... well, exactly what you'd expect them to be. They're anagrams. Just like all the other clues, they can be combined with other clue types. There's only one catch:

the letters to be anagrammed must come directly from the clue.

(Clues in which this doesn't happen - that is, clues where you have synonyms leading to the word to be anagrammed - are called "indirect anagrams". They are almost always unfair, and almost never fun to solve. Many publishers, especially those not in Britain, ban those clues.)

Some anagram clue examples include:

"Bizarre triangle" - a tool used in calculus (8)

Accepting talent or insane (8)

Teach and disrupt in the glen (9)

The answers are INTEGRAL*, TOLERANT*, and ENLIGHTEN*.

Anagram indicators are incredibly varied. They include: abnormal, about, absurdly, adapted, adjustment, agitated, alteration, amiss, anew, another way, around, arranged, askew, assembly, assortment, awful(ly), awry, badly, batty, and bizarre, just to name a few.

The &Lit Clue

Finally, we have the &Lit clue. It's sort of an exception to the "three parts" rule in that the definition and subsidiary indication are one and the same. That's why it's called "&lit": that stands for "and literally so". These clues are usually unindicated, but occasionally given an exclamation point at the end.

As usual, some examples:

First person to be USA's #2! (5)

Cast, or characters in play! (6)

Russia, reorganized after abolishing last traces of Nikolai and Alexandra! (4, abbr.)

These answers are ADAM +(u)S(a), ACTORS*, and USSR(-_i,_a)*. As you can see, the entire clue is the definition and the wordplay.

These three clues are taken from the 2011 MIT Mystery Hunt; this puzzle was written by Aaron Dinkin and Noah Snyder.


Tips and Guidelines (for solvers)

  • Words don't have to have the same meaning in the surface reading as in the cryptic reading. Pay attention to homographs that seem to be verbs, but are really nouns (or vice versa). "Putter", for instance, could refer to a golf club or "dawdling around".

  • Don't look for the definition in the middle of a clue. It should be at the beginning or the end.

  • Anagrams and hidden words are often the easiest to find. Look for those first.

  • Try to find the definition and separate it out. If you see "with" as the second word, then the definition probably isn't the first word only, because then the wordplay would start with "with". In a short clue, that means it must be the last word; in a long clue, it must be either at the end or a longer definition at the beginning.

  • Bizarre phrasing in the surface usually means the setter was constrained in some sense. Figuring out why they were constrained to not choose something more natural-sounding may give you an idea of what the wordplay actually is.

Tips and Guidelines (for setters)

  • Indicator words must always grammatically indicate what they act upon. They can act on multiple different pieces, but they can't be separated from the indicator word unless the separation grammatically tells you what to act upon. ("Take E from TEAR" is okay; "take a bow E TEAR" is not.)

  • Many clues rely on ambiguity of what an indicator acts on. Does "broken ___ and ___" mean to anagram the left blank, then add a synonym for the right blank, or does it mean to anagram both blanks and the word "and"? Combining this with a disguised definition can make cryptic clues difficult without being complicated.

  • Make sure to pay attention to your surface reading. The best cryptic clues have a natural-sounding surface reading that is completely different from the cryptic reading: what were once verbs must be interpreted as nouns and vice versa, surface punctuation distracts from the correct parsing of the clue...

  • Charades, double definitions, and &lit clues don't need to be indicated. Everything else does. If you're not sure if it's fair, go ahead and indicate it - there's nothing wrong with adding "with" or "by" to a charades clue.

  • You can safely hide a necessary capital by putting the word at the start of your clue, or vice versa. "Apple product" can be a definition for IPAD, MACBOOK, JUICE, or SEEDS.

Some common pitfalls:

  • Doing overcomplicated wordplay. You don't need to clue DRAWER as D(RAW<)E + R when you could just use REWARD<.

  • Ambiguous reversal and homophone clues. The clue "Celebrity, I heard, was lazy" would've been ambiguous - the answer could be either IDOL or IDLE, and nothing would distinguish them except crossing entries.


Resources

Here are various resources that may assist you in writing, solving, or understanding cryptic clues:

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    $\begingroup$ What about the clues with '?' at the end? Are they anything in particular? $\endgroup$ – boboquack Nov 23 '16 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ @boboquack: Typically they indicate that the definition part has some form of alternate intepretation required - for instance, "mental block" cluing a Rubik's Cube, or "flower" cluing a river (flow-er). It's still a valid definition, just one that's tricky to intepret even after separating it from the wordplay part. $\endgroup$ – Deusovi Nov 23 '16 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ Can start/end extractions take multiple letters without additional cluing? For example, could your pig's head => P clue just as validly resolve to PI, or do you need to explicitly call that out (as in your both feet example)? $\endgroup$ – Alconja Nov 23 '16 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is great. But I have a general worry about this kind of beginner's explanation of cryptic clues that jumps straight into taking about 'specific rules' without an overall justification ("a cryptic clue is a sort of riddle usually using wordplay to lead to an answer in a deceptive way" or similar). After all, the 'rules' didn't come first, they're just the ways of doing a clue that naturally developed. Otherwise it's a bit like explaining what a novel is by saying "well it will be one of these seven things: overcoming a monster, or rags to riches, or a quest, or..." $\endgroup$ – aPaulT Nov 23 '16 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Deusovi yes I guess it pretty much does – must have skipped over that on the first read, sorry. I suppose what I meant was that even the definition/wordplay split is more of an emergent general pattern than an inherent rule, and not all clues have it – &lit type clues as you mention, but also 'cryptic definition' clues (eg "Die of cold" for ICE CUBE), which are pretty common in UK cryptics. Anyway this is probably unnecessary nitpicking on my part, this is a great post as is $\endgroup$ – aPaulT Nov 23 '16 at 16:26

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