Sunday, June 28, 2009

Surface Reading, Cryptic Reading

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For new solvers, this is to clear up some terminology used on this site and elsewhere in discussions about cryptic clues.

Surface Reading

The surface reading (also called surface meaning, or simply surface) of a clue is its external meaning - what the clue conveys when you read it as a straight sentence/phrase.

Take the word CHAIR, and look at three different clues for it.

  1. Piece of furniture one in daily (5)
  2. Burn around one piece of furniture (5)
  3. Cleaning-lady holds a position of authority (5)

All three break the word up as CHA{I}R.

The wordplay is identical, but what of the surfaces?

Forget for a moment that these are cryptic clues, just read them literally. You'll see that clue (1) is nonsensical, clue (2) has a grammatically correct surface but is semantically weak (what does it mean to "burn around one piece of furniture"?). Clue (3) is the most plausible of the lot.

A good surface will be meaningful, often intriguing or witty. The kind of phrase that you're likely to come across in conversation, writing or thought. A good surface will also try to direct your attention away from the cryptic meaning of the clue.

Cryptic Reading

The cryptic reading or cryptic meaning of a clue is its hidden meaning - the meaning that the solver must unravel to arrive at the solution.

Take clue (3) again: Cleaning-lady holds a position of authority (5)

While the surface is about a charwoman who holds a position of authority, the clue cryptically says:
cleaning-lady = CHAR, holds = containment indicator, a = I.

"position of authority" is the definition. The segment "cleaning-lady holds a" is together called the wordplay (or subsidiary indication, see comment#1).

Good cryptic reading will have a fair definition and wordplay. It will contain either no superfluous words or only those that do not interfere with the wordplay. It will give the solver a good chance to reach the solution.

---
In clue (3), a = I.
In clues (1) and (2), one = I.

Which is better?

one = I is more precise for the cryptic reading, but a = I makes for a smoother surface.

The best clues manage to do both: have great surfaces and equally great cryptic reading.

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7 comments

Chaturvasi said...

In the example
Cleaning-lady holds a position of authority (5)
I would consider 'position of authority' as definition for word req'd.
I would think "cleaning-lady holds a" is the subsidiary indication.
The term cryptic definition that you use always confuses me.
Did you cook up the first two clues or are they from published crosswords? If you condescend to answer this idle question of mine, it's enough if you say 'yes' - no need to give the source.

Shuchi said...

I would consider 'position of authority' as definition for word req'd.
I would think "cleaning-lady holds a" is the subsidiary indication.


Right, I just tend to say 'wordplay' more than 'subsidiary indication'. Both mean the same don't they?

I say 'cryptic reading/meaning' for the hidden meaning, as it seems apt when put against 'surface reading/meaning'. That's different from 'cryptic definition' which is the clue type.

The terms 'cryptic reading/meaning' are used on the Times For The Times blog as well.

Did you cook up the first two clues
Yes :)

Chaturvasi said...

Thanks, Shuchi.
In my first post I meant to say 'cryptic reading' as you rightly corrected me.

Shuchi said...

I've added a new line in the main post to include the term "subsidiary indication". Thanks for bringing it to mind, CVasi Sir.

Sudheer Kesari said...

Hi, I just discovered this blog today. I think it is a great blog.
BTW, I thought the first clue was really not so nonsensical, after all. A 'daily' is a cleaning person, who visits daily. So daily = char, as in charwoman. If you put 1, that is , i inside char, you get chair. Fairly standard clue, I think. Did I miss something?
- Sudheer Kesari from Bangalore

Sudheer Kesari said...

Sorry. I take back my previous comment. I just realised that you meant the surface reading is nonsensical.

Shuchi said...

Hi Sudheer

Welcome here. You got it, that's precisely what I meant.