The Basics

When solving cryptic crosswords, always start by checking the clues that are straightforward and easy to solve. This will give you a foothold on the puzzle, and will help you to build on your progress as you move on to more difficult clues. In addition, it can be helpful to keep a list of commonly used crossword abbreviations handy, as well as a dictionary of all the words that appear in the puzzle. When all else fails, don’t be afraid to resort to guesswork – after all, every solved clue brings you one step closer to completing the puzzle!

Anyone who spends time in public doing cryptic crosswords will be familiar with the lament, ‘I can’t do cryptic crosswords’. The uninitiated seem to believe that there is a particular mental ability needed to tackle these clues and that they simple ‘don’t have’ what it takes to work them out. The truth is that some cryptic clues can be very easy indeed – easier than a ‘straight’ clue; how they differ is that their solution is ‘concealed’ within the wording and design of the clue itself.

‘Concealed’ is really a better word than ‘cryptic’ since there’s not really any such thing as ‘a’ cryptic clue. The clues that make up an entire crossword will actually be of several different types (as discussed in more detail in clue types) and you’ll probably find one type easier than another. A large part of solving a crossword is simply in identifying the type of clue you’re looking at since once identified some have their solution literally staring you in the face.

A good place to start, then, is with some of the easier clue types. These include:


These are clues where the answer is an anagram of the clue itself (or part thereof). For example, ‘Icy hot’ could clue ‘Hospital’. The word ‘anagram’ will usually be indicated in the clue by words such as ‘mixed’, ‘rearranged’ or ‘in a different order’.


A homophone is a word that is pronounced in the same way as another word but has a different meaning, even if it is spelt differently. For example, ‘they have led many astray’ could clue ‘Sheep’.

Container and contents

In these clues, the answer is contained within the clue itself (or vice versa). For example, ‘an animal in a cage perhaps’ could clue ‘Ape’.


These are clues where the answer is indicated by a series of words or parts of words that, when put together, make up the answer. For example, ‘part of the day + a river in South America’ could clue ‘Morning’.

Straight synonyms

In these clues, the answer is simply a synonym for the clue itself. For example, ‘large vehicle’ could clue ‘Bus’.

Now that you know some of the basics, you’re ready to start solving! But before you do, there are a few more things you should know about cryptic crosswords.

Common cryptic crossword abbreviations

To save space, many constructors use standard abbreviations in their clues. Here are some of the most common ones:

&lit         – the answer is literally what the clue says

&lit          – ‘and so on’, ‘etcetera’

agcy          – ‘agency’

b/w           – ‘between’

char          – ‘character’

comp          – ‘composer’

con           – ‘contraction’

e.g.          – ‘for example’

ed            – ‘editor’

fem           – ‘female’

inits         – ‘initials’

lit           – ‘literature’

masc          – ‘male’

nb            – ‘note well’ (i.e. pay attention to this!)

OP            – ‘opposite’

pl             – ‘plural’

poss          – ‘possession’

prep          – ‘preposition’

re            – ‘regarding’

ref           – ‘reference’

rev           – ‘reversal’

sing          – ‘singular’

staggered     – the answer is hidden in the clue, usually at intervals

title         – ‘title of a work’

univ          – ‘university’

viz           – ‘namely’

wds           – ‘words’

wkday        – ‘weekday’

ymca     – an anagram of ‘mayor’ or a similar functionary

One of the most common mistakes made by cryptic ‘virgins’ is to approach a cryptic crossword in the same manner you would a ‘straight’ puzzle. While you might reasonably be able to start at ‘1 across’ and work your way steadily through the answers in an ordinary puzzle, you’re unlikely to be able to do this with a cryptic crossword (if you can, you probably don’t need these guides!). With a cryptic crossword it’s important to split the task down before you start, identify the easier solutions and fill those in, before attempting to tackle ones that seem harder.

Cryptic crosswords also require stamina and patience. I cannot count the number of times we’ve struggled with a clue and have got to the point of giving up, only to have a revelation that reveals it to be one of the simplest answers of the lot. Cryptic setters delight in misleading the unwary so if a solution appears to require an arcane knowledge of ancient Greek philosophers and their pets you may well be thinking too hard.

Follow the remainder of these guides and you’ll have a good idea of how easy a cryptic crossword can be.