Cryptic Clue Anatomy

by Denise Sutherland

So, what makes a cryptic clue? There are some general principles that apply to most types of cryptic clues.

We’re all used to regular crossword clues, which are basically definitions for, or possibly examples of, the answer. So you might have:

leopard cryptic

Feline (7) = LEOPARD

In a cryptic clue, however, there are two ways of getting to the answer. There is a definition, just like in a regular crossword clue, and an extra part called the wordplay.  Both parts of the clue lead to the same word, which is the answer you write into the crossword grid.

So, we have feline as a definition for our LEOPARD clue, but what can we do with the wordplay?

There are around nine types of cryptic wordplay in use (plus a few rarer varieties). These are:

  • Anagrams (jumbled letters)
  • Charades (one bit after another)
  • Containers (one bit inside another)
  • Deletions (letters removed)
  • Reversals (letters run backwards)
  • Double Definitions (two definitions for the same word)
  • Homophones (words that sound alike)
  • Hidden Words (words hidden inside other words)
  • Cryptic Definitions

I will go into each of these in more detail in upcoming blog posts. The main thing to know from this is that there are not an infinite number of ways that cryptic setters can torture you!

Most sorts of cryptic clues also have indicator words. These are words which tell you what sort of f wordplay is being used. Not every type uses them (charades, double definitions and cryptic definitions don’t always, in general), but most do. These indicator words tell you what to do with the wordplay to get to the answer. So a reversal clue has to have a reversal indicator, which might be a word like running back, or backwards. Similarly, a homophone clue has to have a homophone indicator, which could be something like aloud or I heard.

So, let’s get back to our LEOPARD clue. We have the definition sorted out : feline. Now for the wordplay. There are a lot of ways I could write the wordplay for LEOPARD. This time I’m going to use an anagram, paroled. And the anagram indicator of lunatic. Giving us:

Lunatic paroled feline (7) = LEOPARD

In this clue the wordplay is lunatic paroled, and the definition is feline. Both lead to the same answer, LEOPARD. Keep in mind that the ‘surface reading’ of the clue is only there to waylay you: the crazy person who let out a wild cat on parole is nothing to do with the clue!

In cryptic clues, the pattern can be:

definition + wordplay = answer


wordplay + definition = answer

But rest assured, you won’t find the definition sandwiched in the middle of the clue, with the wordplay around it.

So when approaching a cryptic clue, you can be sure that the first part or the second part of the clue is the definition. The trick, of course, is figuring out which part … and the definition may be only one word, or a brief phrase … But if you do think you know what the definition is, then rest of the clue automatically can be pinned down as the wordplay. And vice versa!

Image courtesy of anankkml at


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