The cryptic crossword or British-style crossword differs from the standard American-style crossword puzzle in that they have complex, two-part clues. One of the parts should be a straightforward clue, like in an American crossword, while the other may be a definition of another sense of the word, or some form of wordplay.

Cryptic Crossword Clue Types

  1. Each clue consists of two separate parts, the straight definition and the wordplay, run together to make a single statement that usually makes some sort of sense (or nonsense), called the surface reading. The wordplay may be any of the types described in the following rules. These two parts may be separated by a connective word or run directly together, but they do not overlap or intermingle; the straight definition will always appear at the beginning or end of the clue. The one exception to this rule is &lit., or literal clues. In these clues, the entire clue is a straight definition (though perhaps a stilted or punny one), and the entire clue can be read differently to be a wordplay clue for the answer. The classic example is "A grim era, perhaps!" (solution). These clues are customarily denoted by an exclamation point (!) at the end of the clue. Watch out for clues where words in either part of the clue have a different meaning in the clue than in the surface reading.
  2. Double definition: In this type of clue, the wordplay is simply another definition for another meaning or sense of the word. Sometimes one of the definitions is a pun. Example: "Pisa's tower does it fat-free." (solution). As in American crosswords, a punny definition is often denoted by a question mark (?) at the end of the clue.
  3. Anagram: In this type of clue, the wordplay is a scrambled form of the answer, together with a word (called the anagram indicator) which indicates some sense of rearrangement, mix-up, confusion, or change. Sometimes the letters to be rearranged are given literally in the clue, while other times the word to be anagrammed may be one that is defined or suggested by the clue, but anagramming of words defined in the clue is generally limited to easier words. Anagrams are often combined with other clue types; you could have a container clue where one of the two words is anagrammed, or a charade where one of the parts is anagrammed, or a couple parts are anagrammed together.
  4. Reversal: In a reversal clue, the wordplay is a word (possibly literally given but usually defined) together with a word that suggests reversal: back, turned around, left, west, up, north (note that some of these only work with across clues or only with down clues). This is often combined with a charade, where either one part of a charade is reversed, or a charaded combination of two or more parts is then, as a whole, reversed.
  5. Charade: In a charade clue, the answer is clued as two or more parts, which can be joined to form the answer. For example, "Find the opposite of solid water." (solution) Charades are very often combined with other clue types, especially in cluing some of the parts that make up the clue. A charade clue does not need any special indicator word to indicate the joining of parts, though sometimes one may be present.
  6. Container: In container clues, the wordplay consists of clues for two words (sometimes one of them may be given literally, especially if it is a small word), together with an indicator of one word being within, surrounded by, eaten, or otherwise contained in the other word. Thus "gaits" could be clued as "it" inside "gas". Often one or both parts of the container are clued as wordplay of other types.
  7. Hidden Word: In these clues, the answer is hidden within other words, as "April" is hidden within "chap riled." An indicator word is normally present, either indicating concealment or containment; these indicators can sometimes be confused with the indicators for container clues. These clues usually stand alone, but occasionally can be combined with other type of clues, such as a reversed hidden word.
  8. Homophone: In these clues, another word that sounds the same as the answer is clued, along with an indicator word that suggests sound, speech or hearing.
  9. Deletion: In these clues, a word is clued that contains all the letters of the answer in order plus one (or sometimes more than one) extra letter, and some other indicator suggests to remove the extra letter(s). Most often these are beheadments and curtailments, but the deletion clue can also suggest the removal of the middle letter or some specific letter.
  10. Letter choice: These are usually not clues on their own, but are parts involved in the other clue types. These clues suggest a specific letter or letters, usually by taking the first, last, or middle letter of some other word, as in "first of March" (M), "last year" (R), and "apple core" (P), or a letter in a specific position in the word, such as "second class" (L). These clues do occasionally appear on their own without other wordplay, as in "Start of each afternoon seems youthful, not difficult." (solution).

The British crossword or cryptic crossword consists of a square grid (most commonly sized 15 by 15) with 180 degree rotational symmetry, alternate letters checked. It is characterised by the use of convoluted puzzles as clues and unlike the American crossword, word lengths are always indicated in brackets after the clue.

The form of the British crossword owes its chiefest debt to Ximenes, crossword setter for The Observer from 1939 to his death in 1971. He was the first to demand 180 degree rotational symmetry (he thought it ensured that the northwest and southeast corners would be similar in difficulty), and set the basic form and classification of clues, and insisted that every clue should contain a definition. His book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword explained his ideas on filling a grid and clue setting. Even today, there is a strong emphasis on the Classics which can be traced directly back to Ximenes' influence. Crossword setters can often say if they are Ximenean or non-Ximenean, with a friendly rivalry between the two.

Each newspaper has its own style. The Sun runs a 'Two Speed Crossword' everyday, with one set of cryptic clues and another set of quick clues, both with the same answers. It is very useful for students of the cryptic crossword.

The Times sees its crossword as being a branded feature and the editor is at pains to edit the clues to a uniform standard. A similar situation exists for many local newspapers like Metro, The Echo, and in magazines.

Private Eye runs an obscene crossword as a regular feature, and uses own nicknames for people (e.g. Brenda is the Queen). (See below for URL)

The Guardian probably has the most colourful crossword. The pseudonym of the setter is published with the crossword, and setters are given a pretty free reign. Many crossword solvers recognise that there are some crossword setters they get on with and some they do not. Guardian setters (called 'compilers') include Araucaria, Bunthorne, Enigmatist, Pasquale, Paul and Shed. There are about 45 in total. Of these, Araucaria is most often called king.


The anagram is one of the most popular features of the British crossword. There are literally dozens and dozens of words that may indicate an anagram in a clue: 'about', 'makes', 'cooked', 'results' etc. In common, they suggest that something is to be manipulated, or that something may produce another. The simplest anagram indicator is a question mark.

Telling beer makes aggressive (11) BELLIGERENT (Metro 9 Aug 2004)
Explanation: telling beer is an anagram of belligerent; aggressive = belligerent; 'makes' is the anagram indicator.

Herod's new island (6) RHODES (Metro 9 Aug 2004)
Explanation: Rhodes is a Greek island, 'new' is the anagram indicator, Herod's is an anagram of 'Rhodes'.

Regrets misguiding user (4) RUES (The Sun 11 Aug 2004)
Explanation: Regrets = rues; rues = anagram of user; 'misguiding' is the anagram indicator.

Double literal

Also known as a 'double definition', two definitions are put side-by-side. The aim of the setter is to produce a clue that sounds like something other than is suggested by its parts.

All-round form of entertainment (4) BALL (The Sunday Times 8 Aug 2004)
Explanation: definition 1 = 'all-round form'; definition 2 = 'form of entertainment'.

Potty train (4) LOCO
Explanation: potty = loco (as in 'mad' or 'insane'); train = loco (as in 'locomotive').

Poet's injuries (5) BURNS (The Sun 11 Aug 2004)
Explanation: Poet = Burns (Robert Burns); injuries = burns.


Also called the 'Hidden' clue; the letters of the answer are to be found, in order, in the clue itself. This sort of clue is suggested by words such as 'part of' and 'some'. Also considered an easy clue, so usually no more than one per puzzle.

Point some clue 'as taken (4) EAST (Paul The Guardian 7 Aug 2004)
Explanation: East = point of the compass. cluE 'AS Taken

Port, or something of holiday resort (3) AYR (The Times 13 Aug 2004)
Explanation: Ayr is a port in Scotland; holidAY Resort.

Defame most of the islanders (7) SLANDER (Metro 12 Aug 2004)
Explanation: defame = slander; iSLANDERs.

Sounds like

Every crossword will contain one or two clues that are puns. These are marked as 'we hear', 'hearing', 'sound', or a similar word. Considered an easy type of clue and therefore not often used.

Thankful sound for the road repair (3) TAR (Metro 9 Aug 2004)
Explanation: 'ta' is an English slang term for 'thank you' and sounds like 'tar'; tar is used 'for the road repair'.

Talked of money received by corrupt office-holder (9) INCUMBENT (The Times 13 Aug 2004)
Explanation: money received is 'income', which sounds like 'incum'. Bent = corrupt. Incum-bent. This is a charades type clue, but has a 'sounds like' component.


Pooh-poohed by Ximenes, it is retained by some newspapers (in particular The Times and Daily Telegraph) as an occasional feature. It is nothing more than fill-in the blanks in a literary quotation.


The charade clue is named for the parlour game. This is the most common clue type: the definition occurs at the beginning or end of the clue; the rest of the clue gives an indication of the component parts of the answer. Charade clues very often use abbreviations (best to confer with the list at the back of a good dictionary) and combinations of all the other types of clues.

Shocked maiden burst out when hugged by Donald (10) DUMBSTRUCK (Pasquale The Guardian 7 Aug 2004)
Explanation: shocked = dumbstruck. Maiden = m (cricketing usage); burst out = anagram of burst; Donald = duck. Hugged by = put the letter of duck around the other letters of the answer. Du-m-bstru-ck.

Logic concerning a boy (6) REASON (Metro 12 Aug 2004)
Explanation: logic = reason; concerning = re; a boy = a son.

Education starts with nothing dividing the basics, which is wrong (5) ERROR (Gordius Guardian 16 Mar 2005)
Education starts = the word starts with E;
nothing = 0;
the basics = RRR (the 3 R's: reading, writing and arithmetic);
wrong = E-RR-O-R


This is the heart of the crossword. In this type of clue, the entire clue is the definition. The clue usually takes the form of an extended description that may be convoluted or even deliberately deceptive. Clues are often marked suggestively with a question mark or exclaimation mark.

Litter at a match (8) CONFETTI (Enigmatist The Guardian May 2004)
Explanation: a wedding is a type of match. To an English mind, the first picture that comes to mind is drink cans and paper in a football stadium after a game.

Character for whom dinner repeated eight times? (6) BATMAN (Paul The Guardian 7 Aug 2004)
Explanation: Think of the old Batman theme song.

Or famously:
         ! (3,3,3,1,4) HAS NOT GOT A CLUE (Daily Telegraph)
Explanation: none required.


The ideal clue is terse and should be grammatically correct. The ideal clue should read like normal English and not sound forced.

Araucaria gives this example:
I say nothing (3) EGO
Explanation: This is a clue of the charades type. I = ego; say = e.g.; nothing = 0.

Bunthorne treasures a postcard from Araucaria, congratulating him on this clue:
Amundsen's forwarding address? (4) MUSH
Explanation: This is a clue of the cryptic type. Roald Amundsen used huskies to reach the South Pole. Bunthorne assumes that he would have addressed his dogs with the command, 'mush', to make them go forward.

Thanks to SEoD, and Albert Herring for their comments. spiregrain pointed me in the direction of the Private Eye crossword

Further reading:
D. S. Macnutt Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword Methuen 1961 (re-issued by Swallowtail Books 2001)
Sandy Balfour Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003.
Araucaria Monkey Puzzles: The Ultimate Cryptic Crossword Collection Guardian Books, 2002.

Helpful sites: (£25 yearly subscription at time of writing),3605,880719,00.html (The story behind the most cunning crossword clue in history.)

Note: I have deliberately used setters' pseudonyms in the below article rather than their real names because... reasons.

One clue type that has not been touched on in the above writeups is that of the &lit.

&lit. stands for "and literally so". The notion behind these clues is that the entire clue features as a definition, and the entire clue also functions as wordplay. The name comes from the notion that these clues, once identified, could be read out and followed by the phrase "and literally so". &lit.s are another clue that Ximenes didn't like (probably) as the ideal clue has definition AND wordplay completely exclusive from the definition AND nothing else. Nevertheless, these clues are often incredibly elegant and are a good way for cryptic crossword setters to earn their stripes in the community.

How they work

Most often, the wordplay elements of &lit.s are charades, but it is possible to build an &lit. around addition, subtraction, anagram, container/contents, hidden word, reversal, or abbreviation/initialism indicators (and their subsequent fodder). It is very unusual to have an &lit. based around a homophone and, almost by definition, basically impossible for an &lit. to be based around a cryptic pun or double-definition. Being one of the more difficult clue types to solve, it is (probably thankfully) a rare type - expect most crosswords to contain not more than one, if any. &lit. clues are usually (but not always) indicated with some kind of punctuation mark, often (but not always) an exclamation mark. This does help a little in their identification, however it is often up to the setter (and editor) as to whether this is a convention or not.

Here are some examples of &lit.s - at time of writing I have not been able to track down the correct authors to some clues as they are often used as gold standard examples of &lit. clues and have been used, uncited, in so many different publications. (If anybody knows the correct authors, please let me know!)

  • Unknown setter: God incarnate, essentially! (4) - answer is ODIN. The wordplay is a simple hidden word with "essentially" as the indicator.
  • Unknown setter: I'm a leader of Muslims! (4) - answer is IMAM. This one is a charade with I'm = IM, a = A, and leader of Muslims = M. An imam, in Islam, is a prayer leader.
  • DA: Partial set closer?! (3) - answer is ETC. Another simple hidden word with "partial" as the indicator. The string "etc." is often used to denote the ending of a partially-listed set of objects.
  • Unknown setter: Spoil vote! (4) - answer is VETO. Simple anagram with "spoil" as the anagrind1 and "vote" as the fodder.
  • Symptomatic: The bottom of the chest, roughly! (5) - answer is TORSO. Both definition and wordplay on their own are a bit non-Ximenean in nature, but it's another charade with the bottom of the chest = T, and roughly = OR SO. The torso is, erm, "roughly" around the bottom of one's chest.
  • Monocle: soLVer!! pUrchASe amaZing,, MorTGage _LeadS! (4) - answer is SPAM. The wordplay is a simple initialism clue with "LeadS"... erm, "leads" as the indicator. Though the standalone words do not give a definition, the choice of punctuation certainly does.
  • Unknown setter: Terribly angered? (7) - answer is ENRAGED. Note the lack of exclamation mark. The wordplay is a simple anagram with "terribly" as the anagrind and "angered" as the fodder.

One must not confuse &lit.s with "partial &lit.s" - the definition is partially embedded in the wordplay, but not fully. One from Alberich runs as follows:

They give resistance to Tories violently? (7)

The answer of RIOTERS is a charade/anagram - resistance = R makes up the charade portion along with the joiner words "give" and "to", and the anagram portion has "violently" as the anagrind and "Tories" as the fodder. However, the word "They" is not used in the wordplay portion. A good writer of this type of clue - most often using anagrams - is a writer whose pseudonym I presume is DMS (but known as @7upislemonade on Twitter).

1 Abbreviated form of ANAGRam INDicator. The clue type is so common in the UK and Antipodes (and presumably other Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries) that the phrase "anagram indicator" gets thrown around a lot, so much so that it has its own shorthand.

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