John Fox’s Guide to Solving Cryptic Crosswords

A number of people have been kind enough to say that they enjoyed doing the cryptic crosswords that I produce for The Village Magazine. However many of them go on to say that they can usually only solve a few of the clues! So I thought it might help if I put down a few notes and suggestions that may help readers solve more (or even all!) of the clues. There are few things more satisfying (to me, at least!) than inserting the final word and seeing the grid complete.

The first thing that must be said is that staring at a clue for a long time wondering what it means is not often the most productive way of solving it. In fact I would recommend that when starting a crossword you should look at each clue for no more than 20 seconds, and if you have no inspiration you should go on to the next clue, and the next, and so on until you come to a clue which lights up that little lightbulb, and you are able to fill in the word. Then once you have a word (or two) filled in you can start to work around those and use crossing letters to help you. It’s surprising how the grid will start to fill if you have a B or P or Q from a crossing word!

But I am getting ahead of myself. Cryptic crossword clues conform to certain rules and patterns, and spotting the nature of the clue will give you the key to solving it. Unlike general knowledge crosswords, with a cryptic crossword it should be possible to definitely derive the solution from the clue, with no ambiguity. Most cryptic clues comprise two distinct parts, the DEFINITION and the CRYPTIC part (sometimes called the WORDPLAY). In the wordplay you will usually find an INDICATOR which will suggest to the solver what kind of clue it is. To make this clearer let’s look at some examples:



I usually look for the anagrams when I start to solve a crossword – they are comparatively easy to spot and you can be pretty sure you have got the right answer when you unscramble the letters. Take these clues from a recent crossword:

 Liveliness arising from stewed tripes (6). Look at the words in the clue: there is one word of 6 letters –  tripes – and this suggests that the solution could be an anagram of this word. The word stewed in this case is an indicator. There are many indicators for an anagram, all suggesting some kind of turmoil or change. Other examples might be abnormal, agitated, bizarre, change, defective, flawed, oddly, somehow – and in this case stewed. The definition in this clue is the word liveliness. So we are looking for a word which suggests or is a synonym of this word. Re-arrange the letters of tripes and you get esprit, which is the answer.

 Engineer maybe gets lots of memory! (9). In this case the word engineer is the anagram indicator and the wordplay is on the words maybe gets. Re-arranging these two words give you the definition: megabytes – lots of memory!



In this type of clue the solution is hidden within the wordplay. Once again there are many indicators such as comprising, concealed, embracing, incorporating, surrounding etc.

Stuttgart is another home for craftsman (7).  In this example the indicator is home and the solution – artisan – is hidden within “Stuttgart is another”. The definition therefore is ‘craftsman’

A variation on the hidden word is when the wordplay must be read backwards e.g:

‘Schedules in notes a Tory held back’.(5)  ‘Held’ suggests a hidden word, and ‘back’ suggests reversal of the words. The solution is ‘rotas’ – another word for schedules.

This is known as a reversal clue. Other indicator words might be ‘heading west’ in an across clue or travelling north’ in a down clue



Just as in the parlour game the solution in a charade clue is made up of two or more words: ”sung” and “lasses” make “sunglasses” and “carp” and “enter” make “carpenter” etc. So:

‘Flog ancient doorway’ (9): The definition is ‘doorway’ and the solution comprises synonyms for ‘Flog’ and ‘ancient’ – i.e. ‘thresh’ and ‘old’ – ‘threshold’

Or one of my favourites: ‘waves round cereal bowls’ ((10).  The solution is ‘brandishes’

You may have noticed that there is no indicator in this sort of clue

4          SOUND-ALIKE


In this type of clue the answer sounds like another word, which is indicated in the clue by a sound-alike indicator, such as ‘we hear’, ‘on the radio’, ‘reported’, ‘it’s said’ etc. So:

‘Agree to a perfume, reportedly’ (6).  In this clue the definition is ‘agree’ and the indicator is ‘reportedly’. The solution is ‘assent’ i.e agree.

‘Cold country, we hear’ (5). The answer, of course, is ‘chilly’.

Or: ‘Required to be worked like dough, say? (6)’. ­ You’re probably ahead of me by now: ‘needed’




In this sort of clue something has been taken away. The indicator word may suggest that the word has been shortened in length. Words such as ‘shortly’, ‘endless’ (suggesting that the last letter has gone), ‘empty’ (suggesting that the middle letters have gone leaving only the first and last), or the clue will say which bit to delete. So:

‘Cut vegetable, not level’ (4). This one is a bit tricky, as the word ‘cut’ is an indicator for deletion. However in this case the indicator is ‘not’ level. So it’s a vegetable with part of the name meaning ‘level’ deleted, and the definition is ‘cut’. The vegetable is ‘parsnip’, and deleting ‘par’ (i.e. level’) gives you the answer: ‘snip’.

Or: ‘Most ancient, most adventurous, losing head! (6)’. Here the indicator ‘losing head’ suggests that a word for ‘most adventurous’ needs to lost its first letter. So: Boldest’ losing ‘B’ becomes ‘oldest’ which is the solution.


These clues usually end with a question mark. They are the exception to the convention that there should be a definition and an indicator, and are a play on words. So:

‘Ace footballer getting married? (3,2,3,5)’ gives you: ‘man of the match’

Or: ‘A stiff examination (4,6)?’  is a ‘post mortem’


These are clues where a word or phrase read backwards reveals another word, e.g ‘dray’ and ‘yard’, ‘trap’ and ‘part’, ‘Tessa’ and ‘asset’. The indicator could be ‘going back’, ‘heading west’ or ‘turned over’ or, in a Down clue, ‘travelling north’ or ‘on the way up’. Sometimes the word will be hidden in a phrase read backwards, such as:

‘Find flavour, all in a vegetable served up’(7). The reversal indicator is ‘served up’ so reading this backwards starting with the ‘v’ of ‘vegetable’ we get the answer: ‘vanilla’,

Or: ‘Post a letter, having defamed? On the contrary’(7). This is a little more tricky, as the word to reverse is not ‘defamed’ but a word which means the same. The word is ‘reviled’ which reversed gives the solution: ‘deliver’.


These clues are another exception to the Definition and Indicator, and they simply have two definitions, both suggesting the same thing. These clues tend to be short, e.g

‘Bribe stopper’ (4). The answer is ‘bung’ which is a word for both.

Or: ‘Criticises kitchen implements’ (4). The answer, of course is ‘pans’


This list of clue types is not exhaustive; you will find clues which are hybrids of two types of clue and some which defy classification. In all types of clue abbreviations are used often, e.g. B for black, C for cold, E for drug (ecstasy) or east, H  for hospital, L for left or lake, M for motorway, P for parking or page, R for river, T for time, W for west  etc.

The compiler will often try to throw you off the scent (after all, that’s his job in a cryptic crossword) so you may see a word such as number, which may mean 1, 2, 3 etc but may mean more numb, or anaesthetic (because they make you numb!). Or flower which may mean a buttercup, perhaps, or it may mean a river (because rivers flow).

If you are a beginner at cryptic crosswords I hope these notes will help you to solve clues. I hope they don’t put you off altogether! You will get more proficient at solving cryptic crosswords the more you attempt them. You will also hopefully be able to look back on a clue from the answer published subsequently and see why the clue led to that answer.


Happy Clueing!

John Fox