A Guide to Crossword Clues

[Image courtesy of npr.org.]

For someone who has never solved a crossword before — or has solved them before with less-than-stellar results — the field of clues that accompanies the grid is a daunting sight.

But if you take those clues one at a time, you’ll quickly find that there are different kinds of crossword clues, each with their own flavor and level of difficulty.

Now, I’m referring to American-style crosswords here. Cryptic or British-style crosswords have a completely different language when it comes to cluing. (Let me know if you’d like me to do a post on cryptic cluing!)

By far the most common style of crossword cluing is the synonym clue. The default form of cluing is simply offering a synonym or definition of the word. You practically can’t have a crossword puzzle without at least one.

Some recent examples of synonym clues from our Crossword Clue Challenge every weekday on Facebook and Twitter include “Before sunrise” for PREDAWN, “Ample” for ENOUGH, and “Talent” for KNACK. Simple and straightforward.

Another common cluing form is the fill-in-the-blank clue.

These clues can vary wildly in difficulty depending on how much information is offered. For instance, “Quentin Tarantino’s ____ Fiction” is a super-easy clue, whereas “____ Sea” would be pretty tough, even knowing how many letters are in the answer.

Along the same lines are the see-also clues. These are clues that reference other clues in the same puzzle, often by spreading a multiple-word answer across several entries.

For instance, you look at 3 Across, and it says “See 9 Down.” And when you look at 9 Down, it says, “With 3 Across, popular song by The Verve.” But you might need help from the crossings to get BITTER SWEET SYMPHONY reading across several spaces in the grid.

[Wait, wrong Clue…]

Some clues offer more information than you expect, if you’re observant. For instance, it’s common in many crosswords to signal a variant spelling, a foreign word, or an abbreviated word as an answer within the clue.

For instance, if the answer is AMEER (instead of EMIR), you might clue it as “Moslem chief” instead of “Muslim chief” to indicate the variant spelling. For REP, a standard clue would be “D.C. fig.” For SRA — short for SENORA — you might get “Mrs., in Madrid”.

(You can also employ wordplay with entries like these. For a French-fueled clue, how about “Nice, in Nice” for BIEN?)

And that serves as a marvelous segue into our final crossword cluing style: wordplay clues!

[Image courtesy of Rocky Smith Files.]

Wordplay clues employ some sort of pun or linguistic trickery to take them a step beyond the average clue. Often, these clues are marked with a question mark, indicating that there’s something going on beyond the surface meaning of the clue.

As you’d expect, wordplay clues are a favorite of mine, and they’ve been featured several times in our weekday Crossword Clue Challenge. Some previous examples include “Tot rod?” for TRICYCLE, “Tread the boards?” for WALK THE PLANK, “Star trek?” for SPACEWALK, and “Take the honey and run?” for ELOPE.

If you’ve never solved a crossword before — or never had much luck with them in the past — hopefully you’ll find some helpful tools here to guide you toward crossword-solving success.

And hey, if you need more practice, you can always check out the Crossword Clue Challenge every day at 2 PM EST on Facebook and Twitter!

Good luck!


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One thought on “A Guide to Crossword Clues

  1. “every day at 2 PM EST” And for those of us on Daylight Saving time? (N.B.: EST does not mean “Eastern time.” If you use ET always, you never have to think about it again.)

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