How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords

From Martin Woods, who has compiled over 500 crosswords for The Big Issue in the North.

Download the PDF guide How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords.

Solving cryptic crosswords can give you hours of entertainment and is richly rewarding, either by yourself, or with someone else. It combines problem solving, general knowledge and thinking out of the box.  Once you've read the guide below, I recommend starting with the Cryptic Crossword with Clue Type Indicators, at this tells you which type of clue is used for each question, and will help you practice your new solving skills.

In most crosswords the clue is composed of two parts, a hint to the answer (a bit like a quick clue only normally not so easy) and a cryptic component that also tells you the answer.  There are several types of clue, as follows.

  • Anagrams

    An anagram clue is comprised of 3 parts:

    • A clue to the answer 
    • An anagram indicator
    • The anagram itself

    For example:

    Drawn-out, rambling and rude (8)

    Here the anagram is drawn-out, the anagram indicator is rambling and the clue is rude
    The answer is untoward.

    Fail to log red letter? (6)

    The anagram is log red, the indicator is fail to and the clue is letter
    This clue ends with ? which means that there's something in the clue that's a trick question.

    The answer is lodger, a type of letter, as in someone who lets.

    Examples of anagram indicators include abstract, absurd, active, addled, adjusted, afresh, after a fashion, alloy, all at sea, alien, altered, alternative, amazing, anyway, askew, awkward, awry, etc.

    The following mini-crossword only contains anagrams in a classic cryptic format, with a clue, an anagram indicator and the anagram itself.  These may appear in any order.

    Anagram Puzzle

    Anagram only crossword


    1.         Escaped from despair and had hope (7)
    5.         Goes into a stupor from dross we rewrote (7)
    6.         Concert that’s not confined or composed in opera (4,3)
    7.         Shred it into a jumble of flaps (7)


    1.         Iron dad perhaps gave to robotic help (7)
    2.         Complain about Potter’s spellcasting (7)
    3.         Summarize wrong directions to a street (7)
    4.         Sets red herring and leaves (7)


    See answers and a short explanation to the elements of each clue.


  • "Sounds Like" Clues

     Like anagrams, these consist of 3 parts:

    • A clue to the answer 
    • A ‘sounds like’ indicator
    • Something that sounds like the answer

    For example:

    Make money talking crock (3)
    Here the clue is crock, the sound like indicator is talking and the something that sounds like is make money.  The answer is urn (a type of crock, which sounds like earn).

    An alternative variant of these is where the sounds like indicates letters, for example:

    Listen, I see easier each a.m. with this cone (3,5)
    Here the clue is cone,  the sounds like indicator is listen and the letters are made up as follows:

    I           I
    See      C
    Easier   E-C-R
    Each     E (Words are sometimes abbreviated in crossword clues)
    a.m       A-M

    The answer is ice cream.

    Words that indicate sounds like include: say, we hear, listen, speak, utter, pronounce, declare, report, etc.

    "Sounds Like" Crossword

    Sounds like clues


    4.         Speaking aloud is permitted (7)
    5.         Hear the woman’s clothing is covered in hair (7)
    6.         Noisy bugs band (7)


    1.         Interlaced hair said to be like armour (7)
    2.         Supports core groups loudly (7)
    3.         Listen for whether there's rain, for example (7)


    See answers.


  • Pure Cryptic Clues

    A pure cryptic is an obscure way of reaching the answer. It has no concrete rules that are easy to identity. Instead, it takes the form of a miniature riddle, for example:

    I leave silver behind me whenever I travel (5)
    Is snail

    You can catch me, but not throw me (4)
    Is cold

    When formal, goes over her head (5)
    Is tiara

    As you'll see, many cryptic clues have an apparently obvious meaning that must be ignored!


    Pure Cryptic Crossword

    Pure cryptic clues


    4.         Gets hot providing your bread and butter (7)
    5.         Card dealer (7)
    8.         He made others waltz (7)


    1.         What have I got in my pocket? It lets all precious things pass (4)
    2.         Dot that joins other dots to make a fish, ram, etc. (4)
    3.         I get a new ring every year (4)
    5.         Hour when you want this, but can’t do it (4)
    6.         Not what you want to be under (4)
    7.         A crossword, but not this one (4)

    See answers.


  • Double Meaning

    Here there are 2 (or more) clues to the answer, perhaps with an = indicator in between.  For example:

    Socialist rose (3)
    Is red

    Furious, mark voted wrong (5)
    Is cross, with each of the 4 words meaning ‘cross’

    Show you are cross, yet approve (5)
    Is stamp (stamp a foot or stamp a document)

    Late but great (11)
    Is outstanding

    Words that could indicate =  include with, and, also, meets, equals, etc. (though they can also be used to mean other things).


    Hidden words

     A hidden word clue again has 3 parts of the clue:

    • A clue to the answer 
    • A hidden word indicator
    • A word or words containing the answer

    For example:

    City in Czechoslovakia (4)
    Here, the clue is City, in indicates a hidden word and Czechoslovakia, if you look carefully contains the word Oslo, which is the answer.

    Words that indicate a hidden word include: A little of, a portion of, apparent, appears, carried by, content, emerges from, out of, gripped by, herein, holding, in, nursing, portion of, showing, etc.


    Crossword Equations

    Equations are the most varied of crossword clues and can include various ways of forming a word, for example:

    A = B + C

    Reason the wood is icy, say (5)
    Here the A is the clue (Reason), wood indicates log and icy, say is a sounds like clue for I C.
    The answer is log + ic = logic.

    Fury over a painting with eggs (7)
    Fury is temper, over indicates above (used in a down clue) the letter a, and the clue is painting with eggs.
    The answer is temper + a = tempera

    A = B + C + D

    Chance for pawn to steal talent (11)
    Chance is the clue, pawn is the letter p, steal is rob, talent is ability:
    P + rob  + ability = probability

    B inside C = A

    I’m stuck in glue, but it’s a pleasant diversion (7)
    Here the clue is ‘a pleasant diversion’, and I’m  is inside a word meaning glue (paste), so
    The answers is pastime:   past  (im)  e

    A = B backwards

    Beat up for sport (4)
    Beat is flog, if you write this ‘up’, you have golf.

    B - C = A

    Leave the South East to look for entrance (4)
    To look for is search, if you remove SE (an abbreviation of South East), you get arch, the answer.


Crossword language

As well as the components of crossword language mentioned above, there are also things that are used to indicate individual letters, for example:

Almost any standard abbreviation can be used, sometimes not directly (so accident and emergency might be used to indicate ER (for emergency room)

Roman numerals, one = I, five = V, ten = X, etc.

King = k or r (rex)

Queen often means ER (Elizabeth Regina)

Note = any of the letters A,B,C,D,E,F or G

Ring, love, egg, zero, circle can all indicate the letter O.

About = c (or can indicate one word inside another)

First, initial, starter = The first letter of a word

Final, ultimate, last, end = The last letter of a word

Anyway, mirrored = A word like 'noon' that is the same forwards and backwards (though anyway can also be an anagram indicator)

Question mark - If a clue ends with a question mark, then it means part of the clue can't be taken literally. For example:
Glass slipper? (7)
Is "Tumbler", a type of glass and someone who slips (and is therefore a 'slipper').

Many crosswords have a combination of several of the above (e.g. part equation, part anagram or part sounds like).



More than 90% of cryptic crossword clues are written in one of the ways described above, however it obviously takes practice to identify what kind of clue a cryptic clue is and work out how to solve it!  Crossword compilers can also use other methods of coding a clue, which might be unique to that particular author.

If you've enjoyed learning about how to solve cryptics, you can also download some of Martin's crossword puzzles here (in PDF format):

Quick & Cryptic Crossword 1      Crossword Puzzle 2     Crossword Puzzle 3

I hope this gives you enough information to get started and you enjoy solving crosswords.