The bad and the ugly
This page describes the things that make some cryptic puzzles bad. Some of the material here is my opinion, but I hope most of it reflects the faults that good cryptic setters try to avoid, even if they don't always succeed - I know how hard it can be from my own attempts at setting puzzles.
There is a crucial difference between difficulty and fairness in cryptic clues. A clue can be difficult without being unfair, or unfair without being especially difficult for those who know what kinds of unfairness are most common.
The effect of unfairness is often cumulative. A slightly dodgy wordplay doesn't matter nearly as much if the clue has a precise definition and the grid provides a lot of checking. If all three of these factors are problems, solving the puzzle can become a very frustrating experience (or is just abandoned).
All rules can be bent for special occasions, but for a standard cryptic, there's no excuse for bad grids when there are so many computer programs available to help you find the right words.
Many of the rules about grids come from the limitations of the "hot-metal" printing technology used in newspapers until roughly the 1980s. Allowing setters to design their own grids would have been too expensive, so each newspaper had a set of standard grids. Setters would just choose one and fit words into it. This is still true for many newspaper puzzles today, in spite of the theoretically infinite range of grids offered by new technology. I guess setters don't want to worry about the possible rejection of their puzzle because the crossword editor doesn't like the grid - the standard grids are approved by definition. The Guardian even announced the retirement of one of its least impressive ones once, when it appeared for the last time. As of 2009, the Independent is the only one of the five broadsheet puzzles which is known to allow setters to design their own grids for daily 15x15 puzzles. The Guardian and FT may do so occasionally, but I'm pretty sure the Times and Telegraph never do.
"In an orchestra" is not a fair definition for TROMBONE or TROMBONIST. "Someone in an orchestra" would be OK (the conductor is addressing these players when he asks the trombones to tone it down a bit), as would "member of an orchestra". However, even Ximenean high-priest Azed allows an exception, for "verb phrases as clues to nouns that could stand as their subjects". This means that "wags its tail and is man's best friend" is OK for DOG, but not "furry and four-legged".
Commonly associated words can cause trouble - a clue discussed in rec.puzzles.crosswords a while back used 'monk' as a definition of GREGORIAN. It took someone with sharper wits than me to point out that although many of them sing Gregorian chant, there is no Gregorian order, so 'monk' and 'Gregorian' cannot mean the same thing.
'False generalization' is another issue for discussion. Under Ximenean rules, you can use 'dog' to define ALSATIAN, but not the other way round, unless you add something like 'perhaps' or 'for instance'. Since he took over in 2002, Times Crossword Editor Richard Browne has relaxed this rule in at least some cases, though not all his setters take advantage of the opportunity. On the purely practical basis that the number of 3-letter possibilities for "What is an Alsatian?" is many times smaller than the number of 8-letter possibilities for "Name a type of dog", and the same applies to other things like US states and types of fish, I find it hard to believe that solvers are really inconvenienced by the change, once they know about it.
Substitution test: as a simple rule of thumb, if you cannot invent a sentence where the answer to the clue can be replaced by the definition (without changing the meaning of the sentence or producing nonsense), then the definition is probably a dud. (Exception for Azed's verb phrases.)
We must expect the composer to play tricks, but we shall insist that he play fair. The Book of the Crossword lays this injunction upon him: 'You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean.' This is a superior way of saying that he can't have it both ways. He may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can't logically take it the right way. The solver, for his part, is enjoined to read the clues in an anti-Pickwickian sense. This also requires explanation. To take a remark in a Pickwickian sense is not to take it too literally; therefore to read a clue in an anti-Pickwickian sense is to close the mind to the acquired metaphorical meaning of the words and to concentrate upon their bald literal significance. if you do so, you may find you are being presented with an anagram of the solution, or that the solution is hidden in the clue, or a bit of jugglery with its components is being done.I can't improve on this as a statement about what good cryptic clues are all about. It's here in the section on wordplays because the wordplay is usually the part where you have to concentrate hardest on the "bald literal significance". When that significance is at variance with the solution, the clue is unfair.
Every clue shoud contain a definition or equivalent of the answer plus a cryptic treatment of its component parts, and nothing else. Every word in the clue must have a function as part of the whole, and there should be no superfluous verbiage.Even Azed himself breaks this rule slightly I think, by using words that link the def and wordplay. However, his link-words always "have a function" because the cryptic reading with the link-word still makes sense. To help produce a more convincing surface meaning, some setters add "superfluous verbiage" words into clues, especially nonsensical link-words such as "with" - my own particular pet-hate. Any clue which does this is strictly speaking unfair, though regular solvers will gradually learn to ignore the verbiage.
Many British newspaper puzzles seem to work on the principle that people solving the Saturday puzzle are more likely to have a dictionary available - these puzzles may have more 'dictionary words' than weekday ones.
Proper nouns and phrases are less easy to judge for fairness. There are reference books for many kinds of proper noun - see the booklist for some examples - but judgment should be used as well. Phrases should be well known as phrases - one which are just plausible-looking sequences of words are not on. For example, DEEP PURPLE, PURPLE PATCH and PURPLE HEART are OK, but PURPLE SHIRT is not.
|YAGCC Contents Page|
|Other material about cryptic puzzles on this site|