'Cryptic clues are not what they seem ...'

LESSON 1 in 'How to solve cryptic crosswords'

Learning how to solve cryptic clues is a bit like learning a foreign language. First you need to learn some vocabulary and grammar, then you can put your own sentences together.

With British-style crosswords, if you know that seemingly commonplace words are often interpreted unusually and also what some of those interpretations may be, you are well on the way to solving your first puzzle.

For example, a clue may contain the words bean bag. For most of us this conjures up a image of something comfortable to sit in. For the crossword setter, however, the words may take a different and humorous meaning and the answer may be VEGETABLE CONTAINER!

Similarly, a clue which contains the words strange decorations may have you thinking about streamers, fairy lights, festivals, or perhaps, military medals. Depending on what other words are in the clue, however, the answer may be COORDINATES which is an anagram (or a rearranging) of the letters D-E-C-O-R-A-T-I-O-N-S. How would you know that was what you were looking for? Well, the word strange is there as a hint. It's telling you to look at decorations strangely or differently.

One of the most common devices favoured by crossword compilers is the use of abbreviations. If, for example, you see the word Poles in a clue, it is highly unlikely that the compiler is referring to people from Poland. More likely, the answer will contain the letters NS for North and South Pole.

As you can see, cryptic crosswords are very different from ‘quick’ crosswords where you are given a word and your task is to find an appropriate synonym.

Cryptic crosswords require much more detective work and a good deal of lateral thinking. Which is why, of course, they are so satisfying to solve.

Already a crossword fan?

If you are already a crossword fan, you will find that the skills and vocabulary you have acquired won't be wasted. As with any word puzzle, the degree of difficulty with a cryptic crossword is largely dependent on how well your vocabulary and knowledge match that of the compiler.

Don't worry if it all seems a little confusing. In the pages which follow we'll look at how various clues can be interpreted as well as the rules and processes which setters follow in compiling their puzzles. Then, as you start work on a cryptic puzzle you'll find you have the basics to start mastering the art.

Ready to learn more?

LESSON 2: Tools to help you solve cryptic clues

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