Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, Volume 2
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Gotchas!Syntactic ambiguity


Homonyms and homographs

Cryptic writers love to trick solvers with ambiguous words that mean one thing in the surface, but something else in the wordplay or solution:

Exciting to ride new cab, perhaps (3,4)

The surface alludes to a taxi cab, but this is not the meaning used in the definition. If you anagram the letters in RIDE NEW (as indicated by exciting to) you’ll get RED WINE, an example of which is a Cabernet (“cab” for short, often but not always capitalized).

Cryptic writers also take advantage of homographs, words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently:

Mum pelted flying dove (9)

This surface calls to mind an elderly British woman bothering a poor white bird, but in this definition, “dove” is the variant past tense of “dive.” Anagramming the phrase MUM PELTED gives us PLUMMETED.

Homonyms and homographs are just some of the tools setters use to hide their tracks. When trying to solve cryptic clues, beware that it’s sometimes not enough to divorce yourself from the surface reading. You may also have to divorce yourself from the very word meanings the surface implies.