Chris Zetter

Learning Cryptic Crosswords

Disclaimer: I have never completed a cryptic crossword.1

During the last few months I have been learning how to solve cryptic crosswords. Here I share what I’ve learnt so far. This is adapted from a talk I gave at FutureLearn’s internal Barcamp in October 2015.

A harder crossword

I like doing crosswords on my way to work. They are easy to do one-handed while traveling on the Tube and possible to put down and pick up again later. I normally do the daily Quick Crossword on the The Guardian’s app. But when I’ve finished the Quick Crossword I need something else to occupy me which is why I started looking at the Cryptic crosswords.

Here are two crossword clues:

Eastern U.S. State (5,6)
State radio led with NHS reforms (5,6)

Both of these clues have the same answer, Rhode Island, but are a bit different.

The first is what you’d expect to see in a standard crossword. A straightforward clue that asks for a synonym, anagram or trivia.

Cryptic crosswords take that up a notch, having clues that read like scrambled poetry. Clues always form a grammatically valid phrase with their own meaning, called the surface reading, which may not have any relation to the answer. Instead you have to take apart the phrase, find the clues hidden within it, then solve those clues to get the answer.

How to learn?

If you want to start doing cryptic crosswords like me, I found three things really helpful:

  1. Know the common types of clue.

    There are common structures to the clues that crossword setters use, and I’ll go through some of them in a bit.

  2. Use Fifteensquared.

    Every day the people behind Fifteensquared do cryptic crosswords from UK newspapers and publish the answers with the explanation of how they got there. If the method for solving a certain clue eludes you, looking it up on Fifteensquared means you can learn for the next time a similar clue comes up. There’s also lots of discussion about each crosswords after it is posted

  3. Bring a friend.

    If you’re doing the crossword with someone else you’ll be more likely to finish. Also, if one of you has the answers they can give the other clues to help them on the way. Update- I’ve since built a multiplayer crossword tool that makes to easier to share crosswords with a friend.

The types of clue

Here are some of the types of clue you will likely see in cryptic crosswords. These types can be combined to make more complex clues with multiple stages to solving them. I won’t go through all the types of clues- they differ between setters, newspapers and countries.

A lot of clues are made up of a definition and wordplay. I will underline the definition in all of the example clues. In the previous example:

State radio led with NHS reforms (5,6)

Here ‘State’ is the definition as it directly relates to the answer (Rhode Island). Definitions are always at the start or end of the clue, and may be made up of a single or multiple words. It is hard to get to the answer from the definition alone- in this case there are many meanings of the word ‘state’ and many examples of states. To find the answer you also need to untangle the wordplay- ‘radio led with NHS reforms’.


Once again lets look at our Rhode Island clue:

State radio led with NHS reforms (5,6)

Here ‘reforms’ is an indicator word. ‘reform’ itself means ‘to change’ and it’s an indication that you’ll need to reform other words in the clue by re-arranging their letters.

If we take the letters in ‘radio’, ‘led’ with ‘NHS’, we can re-arrange them into ‘Rhode Island’.

Here are some of the words listed on Wikipedia as anagram indicators:

about, abstract, absurd, adapted, adjusted, again, alien, alternative, anew, another, around, arranged, assembled, assorted, at sea, awful, awkward, bad, barmy, becomes, blend, blow, break, brew, build, careless, changed, chaotic, characters, clumsy, composed, confused, contrived, convert, cooked, corrupt, could be, crazy, damaged, dancing, designed, develop, different, disorderly, disturbed, doctor, eccentric, edited, engineer, fabricate, fake, fancy, faulty..

There are a lot of them and it’s not likely you’ll remember them all. Instead, look at the words used in clues and be wary if any of them mean ‘to change’ and so may indicate an anagram.

When you think part of a clue might be an anagram you can try checking it by counting the letters needed in the answer and seeing if they match.


He can’t stop to build on the new technology (6)

Charades are a type of wordplay where parts of the clue combine to build a new word.

The answer to this clue is ‘addict’ which you can get to with these steps:

Charades can come with an indicator word such as ‘within’ or ‘around’ which tells you that rather than putting the words one after the other you should put one of them inside or around each other.

Double definition

Meant to think over (10)

Double definitions have two definitions in the clue that lead to the same answer. Here the answer is ‘deliberate’:


Taxes initially rise astronomically, then eventually stabilize (5)

Here ‘initially’ is an indicator that we need to take the first letter (the initial) of each word in the rest of the clue.

‘rise astronomically, then eventually stabilize’ leads to ‘r’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘e’, ‘s’ or ‘rates’, which is another word for ‘taxes’.

As in this clue, there might be an indicator that you need to take a first letter from a word or many words- such as ‘beginning’, or ‘starting’. Sometimes an indicator might point you towards taking the last letters instead.


When you see certain words you’re expected to substitute them into common abbreviations and initialisations. Common ones are changing chemicals to their symbols (‘iron’ to ‘FE’) and countries into their country codes (‘Germany’ to ‘DE’). There’s a More complete list on wikipedia that I recommend glancing over to get a feel for the kind things that might come up. Abbreviations normally make larger words as part of a charade or anagram.


Tube was quick, they say? (4)

In this clue ‘they say’ is an indicator that if you say part of the clue out loud, it can lead you to the answer because they sound the same- it is a homophone. ‘hear’ or ‘radio’ are other indicators for this.

The steps to solve this clue:

Final advice

If you get stuck you should:

Go, start your cryptic crossword adventure!

I recommend starting with the Guardian’s weekly Quiptic which has slightly more straightforward clues and answers than some of the daily cryptic crosswords. You can also complete the weekly Quiptic crosswords with others using the the multiplayer crossword tool I built.

Further reading

Types of cryptic clues - A more exhaustive list of clue types on Wikipeda.

The Guardian Crossword Blog - Regular posts about types cryptic crossword clues and other crossword-related features.

Is cheating at cryptics really cheating? - Should you use a dictionary or other reference to solve a cryptic crossword?


All of the clues have been taken from recent cryptic crosswords on the Guardian including Prize crossword No 26,477, Cryptic crossword No 26,702 and Quiptic crossword No 827.

  1. But I endeavour to. 

  2. In this case the words are heteronyms: when two words have the same spelling but different meaning and pronunciation. This is a common pattern for verb-adjective pairs in English that end with ‘ate’

  3. I recently got tricked on this clue: ‘Small wound up carpet unravels (5,3)’ I saw that ‘unravels’ was an indicator for an anagram and the number of letters in ‘up’ + ‘carpet’ fitted the clue. In the definition the word ‘wound’ could either mean something that is ‘winded up’ or ‘an injury’. Here ‘wound’ and ‘wound’ are homographs because they are spelt the same but have different pronunciations and meanings. I picked the wrong one because the surface reading had mislead my brain into thinking about carpets (which can be wound up into rolls). 

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