17. Puzzling Thoughts…

about crossword clues. The subject of crossword clue rules, and the lack of a written list of them, recently came up on The New York Times crossword forum. There are a few places I know of that address the topic. Patrick Berry’s Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies and Matt Gaffney’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Crossword Puzzles & Word Games have lots of information on writing clues. Also, there’s Sage Advice on cruciverb.com (some cluing discussion); The NYT Crosswords to Boost Your Brainpower (with solving and cluing tips from Will Shortz and Frank Longo); and Amy Reynaldo’s How to Conquer the NYT Crossword Puzzle (although it’s more about solving than cluing).

In an attempt to remedy this situation a bit, I wrote down the first 20 rules [updated to 23] of crossword cluing that came to mind. It’s certainly not the complete or final word on the topic, but I think it addresses most of the main issues.

1. Number: If the answer is plural, the clue is plural.
2. Part of speech: If the answer is a noun, the clue is a noun. For verbs, if the answer is intransitive, the clue is intransitive.
3. Tense: If the answer is in the past tense, the clue is in the past tense.
4. Foreign: If the answer is French, the clue is French or has a French reference.
5. Slang: Generally speaking, a slang answer will have a slang clue (eras must match). But there are three basic categories of words — standard, informal, and slang — and a clue can often move one category without further hint. This rule might be less strictly applied in more difficult puzzles.
6. Abbrs.: If the answer is an abbreviation, the clue has an abbreviation somewhere in it (especially a word that is not commonly abbreviated) or uses the “: Abbr.” tag. An exception: Acronyms or initialisms that are more commonly abbreviated than not, such as U.S. or NFL, don’t necessarily signal an abbreviation in the answer. Likewise, RSVP as an answer doesn’t need an abbreviation in the clue, since no one spells out RSVP.
7. Shortened words: An answer that’s a shortened form of a word will be signaled in the clue. For example: “May race, for short” for INDY. “Briefly” or “familiarly” are similarly used as tags. This rule can sometimes be ignored in more difficult puzzles.
8. Substitution test: The clue must be able to be used the same way in a sentence as the answer. For example: “Started ahead of time” for JUMPED THE GUN. Substitution test: He started ahead of time in the race; He jumped the gun in the race.
9. Difficulty: An obvious answer for a Monday clue will probably be right. An obvious answer for a Saturday clue will probably be wrong.
10. Parentheses: “(up)” at the end of a clue indicates “up” follows both the clue and answer. For example: “Liven (up)” for PERK. A parenthetical word or phrase might also provide additional information, such as a synonym for the answer, “Play to ___ (draw)” for A TIE, or a further explanation, “Lhasa ___ (dog breed)” for APSO.
11. ?: A question mark after a clue indicates wordplay or trickery is afoot.
12. Kind of/type of/sort of: MEAL might be clued as “Kind of plan.” Even though a meal isn’t a kind of plan, “meal plan” is a common phrase. In effect, the clue is using “kind of” instead of a blank: “___ plan.” Some editors will never use this kind of clue, considering it awkward.
13. Number of words: In most puzzles these days, answers that are phrases of two or more words are not signaled in the clue. It’s up to the solver to discover this.
14. Quotes: A phrase in quotes signals the answer is a similar, spoken phrase.
15. Qualifiers: Clues often use words or phrases as a tag to indicate the clue wouldn’t always be true for the answer. Examples: sometimes, usually, occasionally, of a sort, perhaps, in a way, for one, etc.
16. e.g.: If the clue is an example of the answer, rather than a description of it, “e.g.” is used. For example: “Atlantic, e.g.” for OCEAN. Similar tags such as “say,” “for example,” and “perhaps” also signal that the answer is more general than the clue.
17. As: “Use, as an ax” for WIELD gives a bit more context than just “Use.”
18. Names: When a clue asks for the name of a person, the answer is the last name (or sometimes the full name). If the person’s first name is being asked for, there must be a signal in the clue, such as the use of the person’s last name, the first name of a role he/she played, or the first name of a costar.
19. Myths: If a clue uses a disputed fact, a tag such as “supposedly” or “they say” is used.
20. Var.: If you see “Var.” at the end of the clue, prepare for cringing. This is an indication that the constructor and editor couldn’t find a way around using a variant spelling. Luckily, this is rare these days, but the good news is that it’s probably also an indication that there’s really nice stuff nearby in the grid to make up for it.
21. Repetition: An answer word won’t be used in its own clue. Generally speaking, no answer word from the entire grid will be used in any of the clues, except for common words like THE, OF, AND, and so on. The same answer word won’t appear twice in the same grid, although sometimes small parts of answers, such as ON, might appear more than once. These rules do vary depending on the editor and circumstances.
22. With: a. In a clue such as Become understood, with “in”, the answer needs “in” after it to fit the clue. In this case, the answer is SINK, since sink in = become understood. b. A clue such as “Word with tea or ground” is looking for a word that either precedes or follows both words. Possible answers: BALL can follow both; HIGH can precede both. In easier puzzles, the clue will likely use the more definitive “before” or “after” instead of “with.” c. A clue tag such as “with 22-Across” means the answer continues and the end of it appears at 22-Across.
23. Brackets: A clue contained within brackets indicates a non-verbal answer. For example, [Uh-oh!] could be a clue for GULP, as opposed to “Uh-oh!” (in quotes), which might clue YIKES. Likewise, [What a dreamboat!] is a clue for SIGH. Think of these clues as interpretations of what a sound or gesture might mean.
24. Articles: Although articles are usually not used at the beginning of a clue — such as [Australian bird] for EMU, rather than [An Australian bird] — articles should be used in the middle of a clue. For example, KIWI should be [Fruit with a fuzzy skin], not [Fruit with fuzzy skin]. An exception to the no-article-at-the-start rule is [A Great Lake] for ERIE, since there are five choices.


20 Responses to 17. Puzzling Thoughts…

  1. Amy says:

    These are a solid addition to the crossword literature, Pat! Two comments:

    8. The substitution test gets violated for the “it” clues. Example: [Put a lid on it] for POT. Some people loathe such clues.

    13. Some of the, shall we say, subprime crosswords do signal the number of words in the clue when it’s more than 1, so that’s not a universal cluing rule.

    Another rule: A word in the clue will almost never be repeated in its answer. There are occasional slips where this happens, and it does throw off the solver who’s internalized the rule.

  2. Patrick Merrell says:

    Your “21st” is a good addition to the list.

  3. Jangler says:

    This is a nice list. I think rule #8 sort of has rules #1, 2, and 3 as subcases though, if you want to be really terse…those facts do deserve separate mention, though.

  4. joecab says:

    12: Might help some folks to think of “kind of” clues as another form of fill-in-the-blank most of the time

  5. Todd says:

    I enjoyed the list. This topic of basic crossword solving instruction has been on my mind recently as well. I’ve been meaning to ask Will if he ever receives requests for fundamental-level solving instructions and, if he does, how he answers those requests. If Will doesn’t already have a basic guide for Times solving, this would make a good template.

  6. Patrick Merrell says:

    I’ve added the 21st rule that Amy suggested and also modified the 4th (slang) slightly, since it hadn’t mentioned that slang in a clue doesn’t always signal slang in the answer.

    I know what you’re getting at, Todd, but the idea of my giving Will Shortz a list of cluing rules strikes me as the fertilizer telling the flower how to grow. :-)

  7. Evad says:

    I wonder if #18 could be expanded a bit–I think with no signal whatsoever, the entry could either be someone’s last name or full name. Karen M. Tracey is the master (or should I say mistress?) of these kind of surprises in her themelesses.

  8. Francis says:

    Rule #12 is very common, but I don’t like it. (And Peter G. haaaaaates it.) PESTO is a kind of sauce. HOT is not a kind of sauce. I’d be happy to see that convention vanish. “Word before…” works perfectly well for that sort of clue.

  9. Patrick Merrell says:

    Good point, Evad. That was left out, but it’s there now.

    #12 does seem at odds with the simple precision of crossword cluing. For me, it brings to mind a solver I know (after completing a puzzle) asking in some bewilderment how an ATOM was a kind of bomb.

  10. John Farmer says:

    I’d tried leaving a comment before but it hasn’t appeared yet, so instead of using Safari I’ll try IE and see if I have better luck.

    What I was trying to say was, excellent list! Fairly comprehensive too. On the other hand, there are so many subtleties to good cluing there is probably a lot more that can be said. E.g., where do you draw the line between difficulty and
    fairness? Would you sacrifice accuracy for a funny clue?…or for anything? What do you need to balance within a puzzle…number of names, pop culture references, etc.?

    In any case, as far as “rules” go, one thing on the list that seemed to be missing was this:

    Fill-in-the-blanks: Partial phrases are generally best avoided, and when used, the shorter the better. In almost all cases they should never be longer than five letters. For example, “One ___ time” can be used to clue ATA, but “___ time” would not be acceptable for ONEATA.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    Btw, Will Shortz has written an article with tips for solving crosswords. It was in the NY Times Magazine a few years back and you can find a link at the NYT Premium Crossword page, or here:


  11. mamagotcha says:

    Heh, on 22 I misread and thought “in synch,” which does kinda work. My question: does the word “in” HAVE to be AFTER the clued word?

  12. Patrick Merrell says:

    It’s somewhat rare, but an example of what I think you’re referring to would be:
    (clue) Together, after “in”
    (answer) SYNC
    So, use “with” when “in” follows the answer and “after” when “in” comes before the answer.

  13. Patrick Merrell says:

    Regarding rule #6, here’s what Will Shortz recently wrote on the NYT forum:

    Abbreviations that are not pronounced (like “jct.,” “lbs.,” “bsmt.,” etc.) are always signaled.

    Acronyms, initialisms, and other abbreviations that are pronounced (NASA, G.O.P., V.I.P., etc.) may or may not be signaled, depending on how common they are and which day of the week they’re for.

  14. Gail says:

    Nice list. This is not a rule, but you learn really fast to recognize common answers: oreo, iou, epee, rue, ucla, eli, yale, ott, orr, demi, obi, ole, (I’m sure you all have your favorites).

  15. Scully says:

    Wow! We are such a society of “helpers”. I, for one am glad that I never came across a list of this nature while learning the “magic” of crossword puzzles. Learning the cluing was as much, if not more fun than solving puzzles.

  16. Erwin says:


    Loved your puzzle a few years back where the theme was 10 things wrong with the puzzle! It must’ve given you the unique opportunity to fit in 2-letter words.

  17. Patrick Merrell says:

    Thanks, Erwin.
    There’s a post here about that puzzle:

  18. M. Delfin says:

    When I read rule #22, I thought at first that you had misspelled the “tee” in “tee ball”, the game. (The paired “ground ball” probably got me thinking of baseball.) I quickly realized that you meant a “tea ball”, or an infuser. Rule #23: If something seems wrong, it’s probably your mistake, and not the puzzle’s!

  19. I’m very fond of rule 8 as a guide in cyptic crosswords, but I don’t think it always applies in cryptic or non-cryptic puzzles.

    A non-cryptic clue I remember because it fooled me was something like: “Opening of hockey game” (7 letters). This turned out to be not “FACE-OFF” or anything similar, but “O Canada”. The substitution test fails but the clue seems perfectly OK. I’m sure there are other examples. Maybe the first rule is a list of types of clue, and then other rules apply to some of the types but not necessarily all.

  20. irene goomishian says:

    They are out of context in the Ny times

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