Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, Volume 2
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How to solve cryptic crosswords

Every cryptic crossword clue provides two roads to its solution: a straight dictionary- or thesaurus-style definition, plus a coded wordplay message. (The double definition is a notable exception.) The wordplay, sometimes called the subsidiary indication, juggles word pieces and letter-manipulating devices to spell out the answer in a roundabout way. The solver’s challenge is to figure out where the definition ends and the wordplay begins (or vice versa) then crack the clue-writer’s code. Consider a clue such as:

Overlooking rival coalition (7)

The wordplay and straight definition are both in there, but they’ve been pasted together to form a single innocent-looking, coherent-sounding phrase. This surface reading (or “surface” for short) is designed to mislead and hide the cluer’s true intent. So the first rule of cryptic solving is to ignore the surface reading. Have faith that the definition and wordplay are both there. But where are they in this clue? Read on to find out!

Wordplay devices

The wordplay portion of a cryptic clue is a miniature set of assembly instructions made to look like a casual phrase. Some instructions tell you to put letters next to others, put letters around others, unscramble letters, reverse letters, add letters or delete letters. But whatever the wordplay asks you to do, the instructions are always spelled out – you just have to figure out what they actually are. Different types of wordplay are called out using various indicators. One of the keys to solving cryptic crosswords is knowing what wordplay devices are in the clue-writer’s toolbox, so you can gain experience in spotting these indicators.

Note: In these pages, definitions, indicators and link words (as explained in the link words section) are highlighted for illustration purposes. Such help, of course, is not provided in actual clues!

  1. Anagrams
  2. Hidden words
  3. Charades
  4. Containers
  5. Reversals
  1. Double definitions
  2. Homophones
  3. Deletions
  1. Combination clues
  2. Alphabet soup
  3. Link words
  4. Connectors
  1. Wordplay inversions
  2. &Lit’s (and literally so)
  3. Spoonerisms
  4. Letter shifts
  5. Substitutions


Cryptic-crossword solvers are a savvy bunch, so clue-writers are constantly looking for ever-cleverer ways to deceive them. Here are things to watch out for as you crack the hidden meaning in cryptic clues:

  1. Homonyms and homographs
  2. Syntactic ambiguity
  3. Hidden capitalization

Practice puzzle

This practice puzzle contains all eight common wordplay devices. Click here for solutions.

1 2 3
  1. Harangue one involved in barter (6)container
  2. Hail speaker’s appeals to heaven (6)homophone
  3. Refunded return of baby’s undergarment (6)reversal
  4. Notice opening’s appearance (6)charade
  1. Lists gratuities (4)double definition
  2. Hit in back, deer ran injured (4-3)anagram
  3. Paradise as easily harbors illness (7)hidden word
  4. Revision #100 dropped in official directive (4)deletion