Monday, January 22, 2018

Learn Cryptic Crosswords app by Teazel

CZD LogoI tried out this mobile app recently that shook me out of blogging hibernation. If you have friends new to cryptic crosswords and keen to learn, this might interest them.

Here are my impressions after trying it out on an iPhone. At this time, an iOS version of the app is available; the Teazel team tells me an Android version is coming soon.

Wish you a very happy 2018!

App Content

The first thing that struck me favourably about Teazel's Learn Cryptic Crosswords app is author Henry Howarth's concise writing style and selection of simple clues to demonstrate the clue types. Sample a page from Chapter 1 Hidden Words:

Teazel App Content Sample

The app has six chapters and they pack in plenty of information: other than clue types, topics such as connectors, abbreviations, punctuation are touched upon and explained with examples.

The content is designed to be consumed in sequence. Each chapter ends with a practice puzzle to reinforce what you've covered till that point. As you traverse through the content, the app tracks your progress (you also have the option to reset your progress).

Learn Cryptic Crosswords Content Progress

There are ten practice puzzles, and the difficulty level scales up gradually with each puzzle.

Practice Puzzle 1 is very accessible, with only hidden word and anagram clues in a 9x9 grid.

Learn Cryptic Crosswords Puzzle 1

Practice Puzzle 2 adds charades to the mix in a 10x10. Practice Puzzle 3 includes reversals and deletions. Practice Puzzle 4 covers a wide range of clue types including homophones and double definitions.

By the time you reach Practice Puzzle 5, you are solving a standard 15x15 grid with compound clues and tricky wordplay.

The last five Practice Puzzles are from newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Telegraph, with introductory notes about the nature of grid and clues to expect in the publication's crosswords.

Practice Clues: Parsing Interactively

Cryptic beginners often ask, "How can I identify which is the definition, which the wordplay?"

This is tough one to answer. Cryptic clues have no tell-tale marks on the words proclaiming their roles. Sometimes we sniff out the indicator first. Sometimes we look at either end of the clue, work out which is likelier to be the definition, then try fitting the rest in jigsaw-style. Sometimes we wait for the checkers to show up. Sometimes we biff. There is no set way, but with experience, the process of parsing happens smoothly and quickly.

In this app, the practice clues give you ready insight into this process. The app shows you the clue and lets you pick the indicator and definition from a list. If you pick correctly, it green-lights your choice, else it turns it red.

Hidden Word Clue: Item of furniture hidden in stables (5)

Each clue type has a thoughtfully designed mode of interactivity.

Hidden word clues offer a slider to move over the fodder (or "ingredients" as the app calls it) to highlight the answer. When the slider is positioned right, a little celebration of stars livens the screen.

App Practice Clue Slider - Right Answer

Anagram clues let you shuffle the letters around like Scrabble tiles, and drag and drop them in answer slots.

 Anagram Clue: Many lost out (4)

With deletions, the cross symbol marks the letters to be eliminated.

Deletion Clue: Reason left out of clause (5)

More intricate clues prompt you with descriptive hints.

Reverse Anagram Clue

Teazel Director James Brook says that finding a way of breaking the clues down, so that people can see the individual parts of the clues without just being given the answer, was the most challenging part of their development. He adds:

We have hopefully retained part of the challenge and provided an "ah-ha" moment despite the support given towards getting the answer. In the later chapters, the support is toned down further so that it feels like having someone with you helping you but not saying the answer.

Practice Puzzle Help

As you work on the practice puzzles, you can check your how you're faring at any point – how many correct/wrong answers, how many clues left to solve.

There are options to reveal letter/word/full puzzle, and to clear puzzle.

Each puzzle carries annotated answers that you can view per clue.

Cryptic Clue Annotation

My favourite feature of the app is its Settings control of how to fill the puzzles: whether to skip filled squares or not, move on delete, etc. [Those who solve different puzzles interactively would agree that a mismatch between the method we're used to and the publication's fill style is the top reason for typos.]

Revealing errors when typing can be helpful for some, spoilery for others - it's nice to be able to switch this on or off, too. [Hope you're listening, The Hindu]

Crossword Puzzle Settings


Chapter 1 is free, after which there is a single in-app purchase for GBP 4.99 / USD 4.99. The free chapter and its exercises should give you an idea of what to expect in the full pack.

In Closing

For cryptic beginners, Teazel's Learn Cryptic Crosswords app is a fine place to start. The interactive exercises should be especially useful if you are familiar with the rules and yet not making headway with newspaper crosswords.

Give the app a spin and if you like it too, spread the word. The website/download link is here.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why Are The Grid's Answer Slots Called Lights?

Crossword Lights

As most of you would know, the series of white squares in the crossword grid, into which answers are entered, are called "lights".

Do you also know why they are called "lights"?

No, it isn't because white squares are light in colour. (This is what I thought once upon a time)

A Display Of Lights (9) - Val GilbertVal Gilbert's book A Display Of Lights (9) uses the word in its title. The accompanying description on Amazon carries an explanation, which further complicates the subject:

Answer: Crossword (a 'light' is a word for 'clue' in crossword parlance, so: a display of lights/display of clues/crossword)

This definition tallies with the dictionaries – Chambers has "hint, clue or help towards understanding" as a meaning of light.


If light means clue, why are we using it to refer to the answer to a clue?

The key to this question lies in the grid's property of checking.

D. St P Barnard's book Anatomy Of The Crossword clears up the mystery [Chapter 2: Patterns and Lights]:

Surely, one may well exclaim, to obtain a solution and then to call it by a word which means a clue, savours mightily of Looking-Glass Land. The objection would be a valid one if a puzzle were to require the insertion of only one word, but an essential feature of the crossword is that each horizontal word shares two or more letters with certain vertical words and vice versa. The result of this arrangement is that each word in the pattern not only represents the answer to some verbal clue, but serves also as a literal clue to those other words that it crosses.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Definition/Wordplay Etymology Crossover

Definition Wordplay Etymology CrossoverTake a close look at this clue:

Away from home, in the open, dies in battle (7) OUTSIDE
OUT (in the open) (DIES)*; Definition: away from home

The etymology of OUTSIDE is OUT + SIDE, so the clue partly recycles the definition of OUTSIDE in its wordplay OUT (DIES)*.

Try another:

What's used as a religious setting on a piece of furniture (7) RETABLE
RE (on) TABLE (piece of furniture); definition: what's used as a religious setting

The word RETABLE originates from medieval Latin retrotabulum which stands for 'rear table'. In this clue's wordplay, RETABLE splits along its natural etymological join (RE+TABLE), with TABLE retaining its furniture meaning.

Both of those clues show signs of definition/wordplay etymology crossover.

Understanding "definition/wordplay etymology crossover"

When the wordplay of a cryptic clue is etymologically related to its answer, it is a case of definition/wordplay etymology crossover.

You have a definition/wordplay etymology crossover on hand if:

  • The answer is SPACESHIP, the wordplay is SPACE + SHIP
  • The answer is LULLABY, the wordplay is LULL + [b]ABY
  • The answer is MECHANIC, the wordplay is (MACHINE)* + C
  • The answer is ENCLOSES, the wordplay is mEN CLOSE Something [T]

Is this wrong?

In double definition clues, it is widely accepted as good clueing practice to avoid etymology crossover between the two definitions. The same isn't universally followed with other clue types.

In his CU interview, David Stickley mentioned the "no definition/wordplay etymology crossover" rule as applicable to US cryptics, while being acceptable as a setter's tool in UK and Australia. I notice though that some setters of UK cryptics too avoid this device.

In his blog, Australian setter David Astle calls out such clues as "hookworms" in round-ups of weakly constructed clues.

Definition/wordplay etyomology crossover often results in wordplay that is not very cryptic. Crafting a smooth surface exacts less imagination from the setter when the wordplay echoes the definition.

What do you think?

Fine or flawed – what's your take?

Solve These

Three words, two clues for each word: one with definition/wordplay etymology crossover, the other without. Enjoy solving and spotting which one.

Rampant war arising always without peacekeepers (7)
One's taken flight to travel across the Channel (7)

Gangster abandoning accepted rule (4)
Turned on by jolly type (4)

Lost hour of sleep's restored (8)
To expect little is being negative (8)

[Thanks to setter Aakash Sridhar (Axe/Exa) for contributing all the clues for this post.]

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Monday, April 25, 2016

&Lit Clues That Do Not Deceive

andLit Clues That Do Not DeceiveOne of the hallmarks of a strong cryptic clue is a misleading definition. Some definitions are so creatively done that they stick long after one has solved the puzzle.

Guardian 26720 (Arachne): Part of autumn operation employs army swimmers (9) OCTOPUSES
OCT (part of autumn) OP (operation) USES (employs); definition: army swimmers

An important component that helps with disguising the definition is the alternate route to the answer. In the OCTOPUSES clue, "...autumn operation employs..." primes the solver to think of "army" of the military kind, steering the mind away from the "arm-y" interpretation.

Camouflage of this sort can be very challenging to execute in an &lit / semi-&lit clue. No alternate route exists in this clue type to contribute to surface misdirection. Additional constraints are at play: besides being accurate, the definition must also coincide with the wordplay without coming across as forced.

As a result, often, the &lit definition ends up being so direct it can be solved as a straight clue.

Independent 9103 (Klingsor): This country abuts Russia's borders in east (7) UKRAINE   
UK (this country) R[ussi]A IN E

THC 11583 (Vulcan): That which manages dirty clothes at home (7,7) WASHING MACHINE
(WHICH MANAGES)* around IN (at home); semi-&lit

The clues above are solvable from the surface meaning alone. As self-contained definitions, they are absolutely brilliant. But as cryptic clues, they do not venture to deceive.

Solvers: Do you notice a lack of misdirection in &lit clues?
Setters: When you write an &lit clue, do you keep an eye on the obviousness of the definition?

If, for the sake of a good &lit, the setter has to sacrifice one element out of accuracy / surface sense / deception – I guess it is wisest to let go of deception!

I leave you with a couple of &lit-type clues that work beautifully without giving away the answer:

FT 14737 (Alberich): A tall tree tumbles, trapping one? That will do (10) ALLITERATE
(A TALL TREE)* around I; D-by-E semi-&lit

Sunday Times 4650 (Dean Mayer): One trusted to get "creative" with books? (3,7) ART STUDENT
A (one) (TRUSTED)* NT (books)

Solve These

Enjoy solving these lovely &lit clues notwithstanding the straightish definitions.

Indy 8031 (Dac): In this, one may be flung out of car hitting tree (5)
FT14828 (Alberich): Lad regularly plunging into water, after small round object? (5,5)
Clue by Rufus: Make hale? (4)

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