Cryptic crosswords: Top clues to solving them

So you want to be able to solve our cryptic crossword?

Australian Regional Media's puzzle master has provided an in-depth explanation of the core types of clues cryptic writers follow.

Read on for cryptic enlightenment.


Introduction to Cryptic clues

Cryptic crossword clues are normally in three parts. A straight clue, the answer hidden somehow and words that indicate how it is hidden. These are made into a sentence not necessarily in that order that sort of makes sense literally but usually the wrong sense. I will cover each type one by one  

Anagram cryptic clues(the most common)

The solution is hidden as an anagram of the answer, Words to indicate this are e.g. change, mixed, unfortunately etc.

Open the voter changes (5) The straight clue is "open" - the cryptic clue is "voter" - indicator is "changes" 

So the answer is an anagram of voter = overt


Hidden word cryptic clues

The answer is hidden within the cryptic clue. Indicators are e.g. in, some, a bit, containing etc.

Not repeated in the initiation ceremony(4) - Straight clue  is "not repeated" - cryptic clue "initiation ceremony - indicator "in"

The answer = once (underlined)


Hidden words backwards


The answer is hidden within the cryptic clue backwards. Indicators - returns with, back, up (for a down clue) etc.

Not reversed to make weight (3) Straight clue is "weight" - indicator "reversed" "not" is the cryptic clue.

So not reversed is ton which is the answer


Two Synonyms cryptic clues (this is an exception as there is no cryptic clue or indicator)

The fact a lot of English words have more than one meaning is used. The two meanings are used in a sentence.

Access to a confession (9) The answer is a word that means both "access" and "confession" = admission

Sounds like (homonyms) cryptic clues

The fact that there are words that sound the same in English but are spelled differently is used. Indicators - Sounds like, we hear etc.

A bit of quiet, we hear (5) - Straight clue is "a bit" the answer sounds like (we hear) a word that means "quiet"

= piece (sounds like peace)

Anagrams with letters added or deleted

Sometimes answer is anagram of a word or words an extra letter to add or delete. Indictors for additions are "with" "and" and the like, deleted letters are indicted by "less" "without" etc.

Here are some of the ways these letters are represented. There are lots of these

Student or learner = L, one = i, ring, zero, nothing, love = o, second class or Bravo = b, echo = e (any of the call sign alphabet)

First Greek = a, second Greek = b, First of May = m, End of May = y, middle of May = a, Wednesday = w etc. bone = T, bend = s

Gets a or gets the, could mean to add the letter "a" or the word  "the"


Anagrams with more than one letter removed or added

Sometimes answer is anagram of a word or words with extra letters to add or delete. Indictors for additions are "with" "and" and the like, deleted letters are indicted by "less" "without" etc.

These are represented by some of the following.  There are a lot more

sailor = ab, ship or on board = ss, degree or academian = ba or ma,  Engineer = re, dancer or artist = ra, party = do, journalist or editor = ed, mother = ma, father = pa, horse = gg, alien = ET, street = st, road = rd, record = lp, company = co, at home = in, in charge = ic, first class =ai

Little thanks = ta, little credit = cr, Attorney = da, doctor = dr or mo or mb,  alternative = or , hesitation/s, misgivings= er/s, um/s

Gets an could mean add the word "an". Is in could mean put the word "is" in the answer.

Angrams with whole words removed

Sometimes answer is anagram of a word or words with whole words to add to or delete. Indictors for additions are "with" "and" and the like, deleted letters are indicted by "less" "without" leave or left, abandoned etc.

The lad left Hatfield to become a burglar (5) - If you removed the letters of lad from Hatfield you are left with an angram of the answer = thief

Chemical symbols, Musical terms, Roman numerals, money

These are more types of representation of a letter or letters

Chemical symbols - gold = au or "or", silver = ag, carbon = c, copper = cu, iron = fe

Musical terms - quietly = p , very quietly = pp, loud = f, very loud= ff

Roman Numerals - 100 = C, 500 = D, ten = X (X is also a kiss), five = V, six = VI etc.

Money - Old Bob or Bob = s (shilling), penny = d or p, pound = L, cent = c, dollar = s


Directions, spelling, numerals, Foreign words


These are more types of representation of a letter or letters

Directions - north = n, south = s, etc., quarter = N E S W or SW SE etc.

Spelling - you = u, why = y, seas = cc, ease = ee, Dee = d, Ell = l, pea = p etc.

Numerals - ten = io, one = i or a,

Foreign Words - of French = de, the French = le la or les, the Spanish = el, the Italian = il

Why you seize a prickly plant has me spellbound (5) This is spelling out the answer for you y  u   cc(seize) a = yucca



In these clues the answer is spelled out in a series of letters as per anagram plus or minus letters.

French friend to go for Spanish friend (5) - French friend = ami + go = amigo (Spanish friend)

US State Abbreviations

The abbreviations of US states are used as parts of words. e.g. California = ca, Virginia = va, Georgia = ga etc.

Note:If you see the word "state" it could mean the answer is a State in USA.

e.g. State "I had returned ring" (5) The straight clue is State, the cryptic clue = I + dah (had returned) + o = ring = Idaho


The best way to solve a cryptic clue is to see if you can identify the straight clue.

You can then start looking at synonyms for that clue and suddenly, when it is correct, the cryptic clue will make total sense.

The beauty of cryptic crossword clues is that you know when you have the correct answer , not like a normal crossword.


Word around another words or word inside another word

Some words are made up of one word around another e.g. Pioneer is the word pier around the word one. So a cryptic clue could be

One comes into a pier to be a colonist (7) = pi-one-er

Look for words like around, about, comes into, as indicators


Straight clue to solve first within a cryptic clue

You will find some clues that need part of it solved like a normal crossword first and then that answer is used along with other letters or words to solve it. You will recognise them as that part looks like a normal clue.

Came down and hurried around to court (7) - The straight clue here is "came down" the cryptic clue is two straight clues first. ie.

You need a word that means hurried and put it "around" a word that means court. In this case hurried = sped and court = woo, so the answer is  swooped


Every alternate letter

In this case the answer is hidden in every odd or even letter. Indicators are oddly, every second, alternately

Two hail Rolf every second spin (5) - Every second letter of Two hail Rolf is w h i r l  - so the answer is whirl = spin (the straight clue)


Same word with different adverbs

With some words, if you add say up and down with them the meaning is totally different. e.g. The word "dress". You can dress up or dress down.

So using this in a cryptic clue would like like this

It is up for being fancy and down for a telling off (5)

Same goes for in & out  e.g. set in or set out


Overlapping two synonyms

In this case the answer can be read two ways. e.g. goatskin can be read as goat skin or goat's kin. A cryptic clue would be describing the second version of this and the straight clue the first.

Another is kingship = king ship or king's hip

Most quick to run away from trial (8) Most quick = fleetest which can also be read as flee test (run away from trial)


Common sayings with a new slant on meaning

Take a saying like "under one's hat" and give it a new slant along with its normal meaning and you have another type of cryptic clue.

You will usally find a ? at the end which is an indicator

Where one's capital is kept in secret? (5,4,3) is under one's hat

False hopes. About dessert on an aeroplane? (3,2,3,3) = pie in the sky


Play on words

This is like a new slant on meaning but without idioms

Its use can be seen on reflection (6) = mirror

How one learns to walk gradually? (4,2,4) = step by step

A baby bird (5) - This is obvious once you stress the word baby. i.e. What bird do you associate with babies = stork


Two clues with …...... between


Occasionally you see two clues in a row where the first one ends in …......    then the second starts............

Are these clues related?  No, not usually. The just seem to go together and we are trying to trick you into thinking they are related.

But! - sometimes they are J. That is cryptic clues for you.


The Cockney factor


The way that Cockneys or Eastenders talk with their dropped Hs and f for "th' is used in cryptic clues. The indicator's are Cockney, Eastenders

Guarantee the last Cockney horse in the row (7) The straight clue is "guarantee' , the last Cockney horse in the row would be the "end 'orse"

So the answer is endorse

Release the Cockney trio (4) Straight clue is release,  the Cockney trio would be "free' - the answer


Themed puzzles and clues relating to other clues in the puzzle


In these puzzles or clues, you need to have found the answer to another clue first. They have the number of that other clue in the cryptic clue.

You would have had my "Little Red Riding Hood" puzzle by now. This is a classic example of this type of puzzle


Well-know names


Surnames or Christian names of famous people or characters are used in clues. The clue has one half of the name and you figure out the other half as part of the answer. e.g

Hope = Bob (or vice versa), Diarist Murray Spencer means Anne as in Anne Murray and Frank as in Frank Spencer

So the answer is Anne Frank.


Star signs, sporting terms


Star Signs   If you see the word sign, it could mean a star sign is part of the answer as in

Blanchette carries sign to determine accuracy (9)  Blanchette = Cate, sign = libra, so Cate carrying sign = Ca-libra-te the answer

Sporting Terms  Cricket has a lot of unusual terms which are used in clues especially 2 synonym clues. Words like over, slips etc


Letters removed from end or middle of words


Some clues need the middle or ends of words removed to get part of the answer. Indicators are :

First , head etc. if the beginning of a word is needed. e.g. College head = "c" ( but it could be "dean")

Note:First man could be an "m" or it could be "Adam". First letter could be "L" or it could be "a" ..

Last, final for the end of a word e.g. Last word could be "d" or "amen". Also the word almost means a word with the last letter dropped.

How a boy finishes off a tramp - this means, drop the last letters of how and boy to get hobo = tramp

Middle, endless, heart for the part of the word minus the ends. e.g. The heart of matter = "atte".


Straight clues

Yes - sometimes we put in a straight clue that looks like a cryptic clue

Stranger aversion (10) This looks like an anagram clue because of the word "strange" but it is not. The answer is xenophobia


Three straight clues

In these clues there is one real straight clue and two others you need to solve like a normal crossword which will produce the answer. e.g.

One of three allowed to complete the journey (7). The answer is triplet (one of three)

This is made up of "trip" = journey and "let" (allowed). The "to complete" bit means to put "let" at the end.


The straight clue has the answer


This is a cryptic clue that has only a straight clue but the answer spelled out in it. 

Look for indicators like initially, first of all, for starters, as beginners or rarely last of all.e.g.

The heart's regular oscillating beat initially (5)

If you take the first letter of each of the words (initials) you spell T H R O B which is the answer.


A word about indicator words


Some words used to indicate what type of cryptic clue it is are multi-purpose and can indicate more than one type e.g.

The word "about" can indicate an anagram, a word around another word or the letters "re".

Same with "around" which can indicate an anagram, hidden word, word around a word.

"With" can indicate an anagram or hidden word.

You need to read the clue carefully to see what meaning each word could be indicating


Method to go about solving cryptic puzzles


1.     Read through all the clues and sometimes you see an obvious answer which will then give you are starting point in the puzzle.

2.     If you cannot figure out a clue, you may not be reading it correctly. Remember that the literal sense of the clue is usually not what is meant. You need to reread the clue and see what else it could be telling you.

3.     Remember that the compiler is trying to trick you into thinking the wrong thing.

4.     Some compilers have their own peculiarities which you need to discover.

5.     If you strike a quotation and are not (like me) a literary genius, type what is quoted into the internet and you will usually get the answer.