Tap The Sign: How to Write Good in Cryptics

In which we coin the regrettable word "cgical."

(Warning: Spoilers for Rackenfracker #1: Academy Awardle in this post. Also, apologies to Michael O’Donoghue.)

Cryptic crossword clues, of the kind we write and have been discussing, are written in English. A constructor’s brass ring for every clue is the aha moment, and one of the most reliable ways to stimulate that is to invert parts of speech or misdirect the reader with an ambiguous word. But like any other magic trick, those sleights of hand work because everything else is normal, which is to say, a clue has to have valid grammar. This, more than any other Tap the Sign topic, is the difference between clues that sparkle and those that fall short (or fall apart).

Most cryptic writers understand that their surfaces — the superficial reading of their clues — must be grammatical: They should sound like English as it is written or spoken. Indeed, at a certain level of clueing competence, the most prevalent shortcoming is that the setter has gone so far to create a workable surface that they have drifted into unfairness in their cryptic grammar.

So what’s cryptic grammar? A clue has a surface sense that must strike the solver as both grammatically reasonable and sufficiently evocative, but that same clue as written is also a set of explicit wordplay instructions with no changes other than, within reason, some repunctuation. (At Rackenfracker HQ we shorthand cryptic grammar as c.g. and have been known to use the regrettable four-syllable adjective cgical, as in, “Is it …?”) In our clue:

Unfortunate slacker denied a donut (5)

the surface sense reads like a story of a layabout not getting a pastry. The cryptic sense, however, reads as follows: “[A synonym of] Unfortunate [can be constructed when] [a synonym of] slacker [is] denied a [letter that is the shape of a] donut.”

All of those bracketed phrases are the sort of things that are implied in every cryptic clue — we know from general crossword principles that clues are synonyms, and from basic cryptic principles that there is an equivalence between the definition and wordplay portions (“can be constructed from” in this case—note that not every such phrase is bivalent; you can’t have the wordplay constructed from the definition). The elision of the “is” is where crossword clues intersect with headlinese — a familiar but slightly unnatural voice that clues, cryptic and otherwise, have historically adopted from their parent publications. Finally, not every cryptic constructor uses rebuses (“letter that is in the shape of a”), but many do. If the question is grammatical coherence, any of those implied phrases could be made explicit in a given clue, but they’re almost always absent.

The clue above requires part-of-speech play. Slacker, a noun in the story told by the clue’s surface, has to become an adjective in the c.g.: LOOSER, as in “make the rope slacker.” (In cryptic parlance, the letters to be manipulated are the fodderslackeris not fodder but looser is.) LOOSER, denied an O, is LOSER, a synonym for unfortunate, which was an adjective in the clue’s surface but is a noun when it comes time for synonym play. (Because every-word-counts concision is coin of the realm, it’s worth pointing out here that the a in the clue serves a purpose — it’s saying to deny LOOSER exactly one O. A surface of, for instance, Unfortunate slacker is donutless would be wordplay for LSER.)

A 1:1 translation of the clue might look like this:

[Unfortunate] [slacker] [denied] [a] [donut] : [Definition] [fodder*] [loses] [one] [O]

An even more dramatic translation would be:

X = Y – O.  

Each of these tools (rewriting, def/wordplay breakdown, XY subsitution) are checks that let us measure whether we are being grammatical. But it’s a squishy art: How do you know if you’re using those tools legitimately? Alas, only practice. (*Note that technically this word, slacker, isn’t fodder, but is a synonym of the word that is fodder, looser. We could have labeled this box [synonym for fodder], but because synonyms have 1:1 equivalence, we know that piece serves as fodder in the c.g. reading — there’s no value to further diagramming, in the same way that we directly substituted [O] for [donut].)

Another Academy Awardle clue that helps us see the evolution of grammar is the clue for STROP, a leather strap used for sharpening a blade. Here’s an earlier draft:

Backup software that’s been recoded as a barber’s tool (5)

A PORT is software that’s been recoded (like porting a Super Nintendo game to the Switch), and because software can be plural, it can also be PORTS. Backup softwareis an interesting misdirect, but backup is an adjective, and not one that means “turned around.” Since that’s what we want, we need the verb, which is actually a phrase: back up. (Smudging that space is a trick we’re willing to play, but we’ll give you a ? when we do.) And because it needs to be a verb, this indicator is working as an imperative: [Hey you,] back up [PORTS] as [STROP], and when you read it that way, it’s clear that as is not behaving grammatically in the c.g.

Next, we tried a more opaque definition:

Something that makes a cutter work better when the left sides of ships are brought about (5)

This is playing a cryptics 101 trick — a cutter is a kind of ship but a cutter is also a razor — though definitions that include elements like something that or it’s a, where in the cryptic grammar something and it are pronouns for “the answer,” are not embraced by all constructors. But some issues jumped out at us. First, it’s gobbledygook—what could the left sides of ships have to do with how well a cutter works? Second, while the left sides of ships is a plural in the surface reading, it’s the letter string P-O-R-T-S in the cryptic reading, and a letter string is singular, not plural. So the left sides of shifts are brought about, but P-O-R-T-S is brought about.Saying are when you mean is is a feint too far for fairness. Finally, no one uses the phrase “the left sides of ships” — it draws attention to itself as cryptic mischief and breaks the surface illusion.

It makes a cutter work at peak performance, having left sides of ships in retreat (5)

This is the final clue. The surface suggests a trade secret for optimizing the speed of a ship that’s running away from other ships, importantly hiding the true nature of the word left. Cgically, it’s clear: [DEFINITION] having [FODDER] in retreat. (Verbs in present tenses — has, having, to have — are preferred for cryptic grammar, and, keeping in mind our earlier comment about bivalence, it’s reasonable to say that a word is possessing the elements of its wordplay. Constructors that eschew such connector words also get to bow out of these “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” arguments about them — a wise move, but alas we’re foolish.)

Like most things, you know you have correct cryptic grammar when you know you have correct cryptic grammar. You have to train your ear, and the more you do, the more you will be able to hear it. There are lots of little Tap the Sign rules that are really grammar rules, but you have to have your grammar glasses on to see them that way. (We know we’re mixing metaphors but “grammar ear trumpet” sounded unsavory.) We’ll get to a big grammar pitfall that plagues anagram clues next time.

Subscribe to The Rackenfracker

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.