This guide is intended as a primer to get you started with cryptic crosswords. While it won't (can't) be a definitive guide, it contains descriptions of the most common types of clues you will find as well as some hints and phrases that are frequently used to help get you going.

How are cryptic clues structured?

General Structure

Firstly it should be said that there are no hard and fast rules for cryptic crossword clues. They are, after all, cryptic. That said, most clues will include two parts. The definition, which will be at the start or the end of the clue, works much like a regular crossword clue. The rest of the clue consists of wordplay which defines the same word or phrase but in a more cryptic way.


A charade is a clue which consists of two or more parts that are put together in order. Each part may be an anagram, a synonym, an abbreviation, some other puzzle piece or sometimes just the word literally as written.

Clue: Goat slept as stolen away
Solution: kidnapped (click to reveal)
Explanation: The definition here is "stolen away". The wordplay is a charade of "kid" (as in a young goat) and "napped" as in "slept". The word "as" here hints that the "goat slept" is the equivalent to "stolen away".

Double Definition

As the name suggests, these clue consist of two definitions for a single solution. Often using two different meanings for the same word.

Clue: Relentlessly pursue a dog
Solution: Hound
Explanation: To hound means to relentlessly pursue. A hound is also a dog.

Clue: Man understood
Solution: Roger
Explanation: Roger is a man's name. Roger is also a response radio operators use to mean "understood".

Cryptic Definition

This clue structure consists of a single sentence, much like a regular crossword clue, but more cryptic and will require the solver to think laterally. Sometimes it might be argued that they are just...bad clues.

Clue: This toy will greet you twice
Solution: yoyo
Explanation: A yoyo is a toy. Yo is a greeting. Say yo twice, you get yoyo.

The Surface

Regardless of the structure of the clue, you should be able to read it as a sentence. This is known as the surface, as in there is a surface-level meaning and a deeper, cryptic meaning. Some clues read more straightforwardly than others. Frequently the surface meaning will use homonyms to distract you from the meaning of the words you need to use to crack the clue.


Wordplay in clues may use any of the following techniques. They may also be used in combination. For example, you may need to think of a synonym and then an anagram of that synonym.


This is similar to how a regular crossword clue works but when used in wordplay will only give you a part of the solution.

Clue: Bewildering scam coming together.
Solution: confusing
Explanation: The definition here is "bewildering". It's a charade of "con" (a synonym for meaning "scam") and "fusing" (a synonym for coming together).


Anagrams are usually indicated by a word (known as an "anagrind", or anagram indicator) that means something like "messy" or "to change". Here is a list or some possible anagrinds.

Clue: A winter holiday, its charms ruined
Solution: Christmas
Explanation: The definition here is "a winter holiday". Christmas is an anagram of "its charms" as indicated by the anagrind "ruined".


A homophone is a word that sounds like another word but which has a different spelling, such as "seen" and "scene". These are usually indicated by a word relating sound or speech, such as "on the radio", "aloud" or "said". "Broadcast" is often used to indicate a homophone but be careful, it can also be an anagrind! Here is a list of homophone indicators.

Clue: Sounds like a bad place for wild animals or a little dog
Solution: Shih Tzu
Explanation: A Shih Tzu is a breed of small dog. It also sounds like "shit zoo" which would be a bad place for wild animals. The "or" here suggests the line between the wordplay and the definition despite the sentence not feeling like there is a break there.


Sometimes you will need to reverse a word. This will usually be indicated by a word meaning "backwards" or "turned around". Usually this will only be used for part of the wordplay but sometimes it can apply the whole solution. Here is a list of reversal indicators.

Clue: Stressed, came back for puddings
Solution: desserts
Explanation: "Stressed" is "desserts" backwards as indicated by "came back".

Hidden Within

A solution may be contained within the clue, often across word boundaries. This may be hinted at with words such as "contains" or "embraces". here is a list of hidden word indicators.

Clue: South American animal is essentially still amazing
Solution: llama
Explanation: The solution is contained within the words ‘still amazing’ as indicated by the word ‘essentially’.

Amending Words

Sometimes you will be required to insert a word or letter within another word. This will be indicated by hints such as "surrounds", "traps" or "over". You may also need to remove certain letters or swap them for other letters!

Clue: Switching sides, scrape to finish
Solution: glaze
Explanation: "Switching sides" here means changing right to left, i.e. swapping an L for an R. Another word for "scrape" is "graze". Swap the R for an L and you get "glaze", as one might a pot.

Other hints and tricks


Phrases such as "back and forth" may indicate that the solution is a palindrome.

First or Last Letter

Clue’s such as "first" / "leader" or "last" / "ending" may indicate that you should use the first or last letters of a word. You may also get "start" or "almost all" to indicate that only part of a word should be used.

Over / under / before / after

Down clues will often use "over" or "under" to indicate a word/letter should be entered above or below another part of the solution. This may mean that parts of the clue are in a different order in the solution. You may also get "before" or "after" (or similar) for across clues.

Odd / even / regularly

You may need to take every other letter from a word. The specific letters needed may be indicated by “odd” or “oddly” (letters 1, 3, 5, etc) or “even” (letters 2, 4, 6 etc). ‘Regularly’ is a more generic term which does not indicate which letters you need to take.

Bits and Bobs

Here are some frequently occurring or less obvious bits of wordplay that you may come across.

  • Roman Numerals (Five = V, Ten = X, etc)
  • About = C (circa)
  • Article = the, a or an
  • Companion = CH (companion of honour)
  • Court = CT
  • Church = CE or CH
  • Direction / Point = N, S, E, W, NE, SE, etc (directions, or points on a compass)
  • Doctor = MO (medical officer), MB (bachelor of medicine), MD (Doctor of Medicine), Doc. However, doctor can also be an anagrind!
  • Dog = Cur
  • Editor or journalist = ED
  • Egg = O
  • In favour of = For, Pro
  • Gold = OR (relates to old usage on coats of arms) or AU (chemical symbol)
  • Chemicals symbols, e.g. Gold = Au, Silver = Ag, Iron = Fe
  • Hesitation = Er, Um
  • Holy man = ST (saint)
  • Home = In (as in "at home")
  • Horse = GG (gee gee), Cob
  • Information = Gen (general information)
  • Judge = Ref
  • Line / lines = RY (railway)
  • Live = Be
  • Love = O (tennis reference)
  • Old = Ex
  • One = I
  • Online = E
  • Party = Do
  • Promises = IOUs
  • Provided = If
  • Queen = ER (Elizabeth Regina), HM, QU, Q
  • Quiet = SH (shhhh!), P (Pianissimo - quiet in musical notation)
  • Sailor = Tar (old word for sailor)
  • Seaman = AB (able bodied)
  • Space = EN or EM (types of space in typography)
  • Time = Age, Era or simply T
  • That is = Ie
  • The French = Le or La (similar for The German - der, die, das)
  • Toilet = WC
  • Unknown = Y (mathematical symbol) - less commonly, ‘unknown’ may also refer to N or X
  • Way = ST (street)
  • Writer / write = Pen
  • Zero = O

What Next?

Try some crosswords!

Now that you know the basics. Obviously we'd recommend trying the crosswords on These Angry Phrases. We would also recommend trying some Quiptics on the Guardian website. These are generally a bit easier than "proper" cryptics as they're designed to be done quickly.

It's ok to cheat.

Maybe try revealing any solutions you can't get and see if you can work backwards to figure out how the clue works.

Use Fifteen Squared is a website that explains the solutions to many popular crosswords. These Angry Phrases crosswords aren't on there but you'll find explanations for the Guardian, Indepenent, Financial Times and others.

Read more about cluing provides a fairly comprehensive guide on clues, wordplay and indicators.