When is vagueness in crossword cluing a bad thing?
That’s kind of a loaded question, because I think it depends on the clue and the solver’s knowledge base. But there are definitely good vague clues and bad vague clues.
Someone on Reddit’s r/crossword forum mentioned the clue “Son of Zeus,” which got a laugh from folks who remember their Greek mythology and just how… prolific Zeus was.
But to me, this isn’t necessarily a bad clue. You know the number of letters (4 in this particular case), which helps narrow down the field a lot.
There are some synonym-style clues that do lend themselves to multiple answers, which can be frustrating for solvers.
For instance, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Kingly,” you could have REGAL or ROYAL, and those shared letters add a level of uncertainty and challenge to the grid. Similarly, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Escape” or “Sidestep,” you’ve got EVADE, ELUDE, AVOID, and DODGE all as possibilities. That’s a little tougher.
But all of these clues seem fair to me. The vague cluing style that really irks me is “Certain [blank]”.
“Certain cat,” for example, might as well just be “Cat.” The word “certain” adds literally NOTHING to the clue. “Type of [blank]” and “Kind of [blank]” clues can also fall into this trap, but there are a fair number of cases where those clues point toward a category, not just an example of that particular group, so “Type of” and “Kind of” still provide some context.
But “certain” is a waste of typing. You could have given me a helpful adjective, or a misleading one, or a funny one. Instead, it’s the least helpful addition possible.
That sort of vague cluing is infuriating, because there’s no cleverness or art to it. Obviously, the only exception here would be some sort of wordplay involving the definition of “certain.” Something like “Certain thing?” for LOCK or GIVEN. But those are pretty rare.
In the end, vagueness can be a tool for clever cluing or a bit of filler in a long-overused clue. It’s all up to the constructor.
Are there are any vague clues or cluing tropes that get your goat, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.
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