How to solve cryptic crosswords
[from the pages of The Guardian]

The Golden Rule for setting a good cryptic clue was laid down by Ximenes of the Observer, the late DS McNutt (1902-71): "I may not mean what I say, but I must say what I mean."

A cryptic clue is trying to lead you off in the wrong direction. You  need to deconstruct the clue and concentrate on the separate parts. Don't get sidetracked by punctuation and the use of capital letters - they are designed to mislead you. To help you, every fair clue will contain a 'definition' of the answer (usually at the beginning or the end), or the whole clue will be the definition. Here are the main types of trick used - often more than one will appear in any given clue.

Double meanings: The clue can be split in two with both parts leading to the same word.

Example 1: Savings book (7) = RESERVE - your savings are a reserve and you can book/reserve, say, a ticket
Example 2: Frequently decimal? (5) = OFTEN - the decimal system counts in units OF TEN

S = A + B or A + B = S: With the solution(s) defined at the beginning or at the end, the rest of the clue provides building blocks to find it.

Example 1: Express belief in old deal (5) = OPINE - to express a belief is to opine = O (old) + PINE (deal wood)
Example 2: Drink ale with fan (9) = SUPPORTER - a fan is a supporter = SUP (drink) + PORTER (ale)

Anagrams: The definition should still be at the beginning or the end of the clue, but a disguised anagram indicator will tell you that the answer is to be found by rearranging the letters of other words contained in it.

Example 1: It rarely turns out like this in books (8) = LITERARY- literary means 'in books'; and 'turns out like this' indicates an anagram of 'it rarely'
Example 2: Tube taken to theatre for three-act play (8) = CATHETER- a catheter is a tube used in an operating theatre and 'play' indicates an ANAGRAM of THREE-ACT

Hidden clues: The clue contains an indicator that the answer to the definition is hidden somewhere in the other words; if so indicated, it may be hidden backwards.

Example 1: Scientist finding partial evidence in Steinbeck (8) = EINSTEIN- the scientist, is to be found in part of 'evidenc[E IN STEIN]beck'
Example 2: From novel crick in the neck get backing all round (6) = CIRCLE - circle is round and is got backwards from 'nov[EL CRIC]k in the neck'

Split words: To get the answer that fits the definition, one part of the solution goes inside (or outside) the other, with an indicator to alert you.

Example 1: Decay in vegetable or shrub (6) = PROTEA - a shrub produced by ROT (decay) going in PEA (vegetable) as P[ROT]EA
Example 2: Casablanca star grabs love for a dance (6) = BOOGIE - Bogie (H. Bogart) takes in (grabs) 0 (love) to produce a dance = BO[O]GIE

Homophones: Words or syllables that sound like each other but are spelled differently.
Example 1: Pirate with a rough sounding manner (7) = CORSAIR - a pirate who sounds like coarse (rough) air (manner)
Example 2: Husky makes noise like a bigger animal (5) = HORSE - an animal bigger than a dog that sounds like hoarse

Pure cryptics: The occasional clue (usually aimed at producing a chuckle) where the definition and the whole clue are the same thing.

Famous examples: Bar of soap (3,6,6) = THE ROVERS RETURN - the pub in the soap, Coronation Street
H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O (5) = WATER - H to O sounds like H20, the atomic composition of water
Amundsen's forwarding address (4) = MUSH - what the Norwegian who got to the South Pole first said to his dog teams to make them move

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited, 1999

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