Thursday, October 29, 2009

French Isn’t Always The Language

France, cryptically In the earlier post about French words in crosswords, we saw many clues in which the presence of words like "France", "Paris" indicated a French translation of the adjacent word.

This is likely, but not always true. Some examples follow where these words are not language indicators.

In the next clue, the word "French" is used in the wordplay to name a French resort, and does not indicate a language switch.
NIE 08-Aug-09: Announcement to put up in a French resort (6) N{OT<-}ICE

In the next, it simply leads to its standard abbreviation FR.
FT 13205 (Crux): Phoney French car I got rid of (5) FR AUD{-i}

Sometimes, it is part of the definition and shows that the answer has a French connection.
THC 8595 (Gridman): French astrologer astounds Ram terribly (11) NOSTRADAMUS*

Or it could be something else altogether. Like in the next clue (what's the answer?):
NIE 01-Apr-09: It may show interest in Paris and London, for example (7)

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cryptic Crosswords A Threat To Criminal Justice?

Cryptic crossword's impact on face-recognition Do you keep forgetting people's faces, or find yourself saying "Hello Vinod" whenever you meet Tony?

According to a study by Michael B Lewis, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, cryptic crosswords are to blame for this.

In its series of articles on Improbable Research, the Guardian carries a report today about this study, which brings out a chilling dimension of the game.

Crossword puzzles are a threat to the criminal justice system. Indeed, they may have been doing damage for decades, causing guilty persons to be set free and innocent ones to become enmeshed in hellish entanglements with the courts and jails.

Read the full piece here by Marc Abrahams, the editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize.

The actual study that this article talks about is reported here. In the experiment, sixty participants were made to do the following activities before the task of facial recognition:

  • read a passage from Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code
  • solve a Sudoku puzzle
  • solve a literal crossword
  • solve a cryptic crossword

Accuracy scores for face-recognition were plotted on a graph (page 1435 in the report) against the activity performed immediately before. The outcome - "performance in the cryptic crossword condition was considerably poorer than in the other conditions".

The experiment concludes that:

…doing a cryptic crossword leads to a detriment in face processing. Further, sudoku, literal crosswords, and reading do not have the same effect.

I only hope I never have to be eye-witness at an identity parade.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

French Words In Crosswords

Cryptic clues sometimes make use of foreign language words in the wordplay, of which French is most common.

NIE 12-Oct-09: Go up to the French peers amorously (5)
In this clue, "peers amorously" is the definition, and "Go up" gives OG.
"the French" implies that the French word for "the" (LES) has to be put into the answer.

What if you don't know French? Not to worry – in crosswords, you can get by with just rudimentary knowledge.

Use the table below as reference for the most common English-French translations you'll need in cryptic clues.

English Word French Equivalent Remarks/Example Clues
the LE, LA, LES "the" takes different forms in French depending on whether it precedes a masculine, feminine or plural word. This gives flexibility to the setter to use whichever form suits the clue.

NIE 03-Sep-09: Trickery of the French in a sense (7) S{LE}IGHT
Guardian 24786 (Chifonie): The French writer climbed here (5) {NEP AL}<-
is EST Times 4303: To make money is, in France, businesslike (7) EARN EST
one, a UN, UNE UNE the feminine form of UN.

THC 2653: One in Paris lit up before (5) UN {TIL}<-
and ET NIE 9837: Where to buy and sell German money and French (6) MARK ET
very TRÈS THC 9533 (Gridman): Exchanges with a leader of Democrats held by the very French (6) TR{A D}ES
who QUI Times 24107: Lampoon Parisian who moves into unoccupied suburb (5) S{QUI}B
Yes/No might be represented cryptically in the clue, such as "consent in Paris", "a refusal in France".

Guardian 24625 (Brummie): Safe-to-consume beef source limited by France's negative repeated action (3-5) NON-T{OX}IC
of DE NIE 9852: Consignment of French uniform (8) DE LIVERY
for POUR NIE 30-Dec-08: French for rain heavily (4) POUR [2]
FT 13213 (Dogberry): "Garment in Paris", I briefly reply (5) JE ANS
FT 13093 (Monk): Common sense of Monk and FT solvers in Paris (4) NOUS [2]

Perhaps since MOI is used so much in English, it is sometimes a direct substitution for ME, without indication that it's a French word.
you TU, VOUS TU is the singular, informal "you". VOUS is the plural/formal "you". Much like tu and aap in Hindi.

ET 3618: Afraid a row will detract from a meal with you in Paris (7) {-din}NER VOUS
he, it
Times 23757: Given caution about the Parisian female - certainly not for nothing! (4,6) W{ELL,E}ARNED
friend AMI

NIE 9813: French friends set out in poor visibility (3,4) SE{A MIS}T

night NUIT ET 3201: Dark time in Paris covered by whatever income is available (7) AN{NUIT}Y
good BIEN (noun), BON (adjective) NIE 22-May-09: It's good in France and America to get extra money (5)BON US
street RUE THC 8954: West End Street in Paris? That's right! (4) T RUE

French Word Indicators

The clue contains an indicator for change of language, placed next to the word(s) to be converted to French.

These are broadly of the following kinds:

  • The most direct ones - those that mention France, a city in France or French: 
    French, Parisian, in France, in Paris

  • Those that mention a French person's name:
    Rene's, Pierre's 

  • Those that mention other countries where the language is spoken, or languages closely related to French:
    in Quebec, Picard's

You'll occasionally see Nice (a city in France) used deceptively as French indicator, when placed at the start of a clue to mask its capitalization. [Hat-tip to Kryptonologist].

A recent example:
Times Sunday crossword 4349: Nice heads keeping adult in conversation (4-1-4) TETE-A-TETE
TÊTE is French for "head".

How To Solve When You Don’t Know The French Word

Once in a while, the clue will require French that's beyond your vocabulary. Even then you have plenty to go upon. Most importantly, you have an indicator pointing out the English word for which you need the French equivalent.

Take this clue:
FT 12981: Child grabbing day in Paris for short stay (7)
"in Paris" is the signal that some French is needed. From the clue's structure and the indicator's placement, you can work out that you need the French for "day".

Suppose you don't know what "day" is called in French. Online, it's easiest to put the English word into Google Translate and convert it. For this clue, that gives JOUR. The answer then works out as SO{JOUR}N.

Solve These!

NIE 9814: Joins up with the French company first (7)
FT 13179 (Bradman): Lodge with French art found in the course of journey (6)
Times 24365: Parisian who enters state positively trembling (7)

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Best & Worst Of M.Manna's Current Series (THC 9663-9669)

The Hindu Crossword M.Manna, a compiler of The Hindu Crossword, holds the dubious distinction of having both the most brilliant clues in his grids, as well as the lamest ones.

Of his current run of seven puzzles (The Hindu Crossword 9663 to 9669), my picks for the best 5 and worst 5 clues.

Top 5

THC 9663: Partisans can be such trying people (9) ASPIRANTS*
Cogent surface, well-disguised anagram fodder and a nice pun on the word 'trying'.

THC 9665: Not against development of non-progressive state (10) STAGNATION*
Another neat anagram - (NOT AGAINST)*. The word 'state' leads you think of a nation in the surface, and means 'condition' in the wordplay.

THC 9668: Then one's chipping the ball in to win (2,3,4) ON THE N{O}SE*
Remarkably well-constructed, with 'ball' contributing O to the answer. 'chipping the ball' is a phrase used in golf, 'on the nose' comes from horse racing, the term means betting to win only. This came across as a very British clue both in surface and the answer.

THC 9665: Severe strain unsettled the man (10) ASTRIN* GENT
Seamlessly merged definition and wordplay, with a meaningful surface.

THC 9669: Why one doesn't give the sack to the bad cleaner? (9) TO LERANCE*
Semi-&lit with an innovative definition. The word 'to' which we tend to dismiss as filler is put to good use here.

Manna's crosswords are heavy with anagrams, and they're consistently high-quality for long words/phrases. A pity that this skill vanishes with the smaller words in the grid, for which the anagrams are not just weak but full of errors. Examples of this follow.

Bottom 5

THC 9665: Dig it out with Al for a calculation by numerical method (7) DIG IT AL 
'out'  suggests an anagram but the letters "Dig it Al" are not getting anagrammed at all, they're used as-is in the answer. Also, DIGITAL is an adjective, meaning 'pertaining to numerical calculation'. 'calculation by numerical method' should lead to a noun.

THC 9664: Rid the ash around the plant (6) RADISH*
An obtrusive 'the' is stuck between the anagram fodder, and the surface is not very meaningful.

THC 9668: Prepared to tax the French to demand more payment (5) EXACT*
The wordplay leads to EXALT, the definition fits the word EXACT. Superfluous 'to' after the anagrind 'prepared'.

THC 9665: Trot out east for a large aquatic fish-eating carnivore (5) OTTER*
The wordplay gives (TROT)* + E, and not (TROT+E)*. The definition 'a large aquatic fish-eating carnivore' seems to be a case of "copy-paste" from a dictionary, with no care given to reviewing/editing.

THC 9665: Have knowledge of an armed conflict in East (5) A WAR E
AWARE can be 'knowledgeable' or 'having knowledge'. 'have knowledge of' can lead to 'be aware' and not AWARE. Plus other flaws like an ungrammatical surface, and an unsatisfactory connector 'in'.


The difference in quality between Top 5 and Bottom 5 is so marked, it seems incredible that both sets are written by the same compiler.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Many Words In The Grid?

How many clue slots in the crossword grid? Suppose you want to count the number of answers in the crossword grid. How will you do it?

["Why will I want to do such a thing", you ask? Dozens of reasons. You find the clue-sheet unusually large and suspect it's because there are more words in the grid than average. You've solved the puzzle and want to find out what percentage is made up of anagrams. You want to do it because like any self-respecting crossword solver you obsess over pointless trivia.]

Tell me how. I'll update this post after a day (by Thursday evening), with links to ways you mention in the comments, and also write how I do it.

No earth-shattering revelations so don't hold your breath, but a property of the crossword grid comes nicely into play there.

Leave a comment, and do drop in this Thursday evening IST to see the updates.

Update (22nd Oct 2009 Thu): Thanks for your comments! Tony (The MEANDERthal man) has written an equation for counting that would impress any mathematician. Baldev does it by simply counting the clues.

Colonel Gopinath, I'm pleased to find, has the same method as mine. Without further preamble, here it is.

A Quick Way To Count The Answers

  1. Run your eye down the DOWN set of clues, counting only those having a number common with the ACROSS set.
  2. Add this to the biggest clue number on the ACROSS set of clues. That's it - the number of total answers in the grid.

Applying this on today’s The Hindu 9668 (M.Manna):

Down clues sharing a number with an Across = 3 (1D, 5D, 22D)
So the grid has a total of 3 + 29 (Biggest Across clue number) = 32 answer slots.


Simpler and faster than counting the clues sequentially, isn't it?

Of course, if you have the clues in text/HTML format online, the fastest way is to paste the clues in a text editor and enable "show line numbers". (There are some things machines will easily beat humans at. At least at solving cryptic crosswords, humans still have an edge over computers.)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Numbering The Clue Slots In The Grid

In the previous article, guest writer Chaturvasi took us through the process of creating a crossword grid. In this post, he describes how to number the clue slots in the grid.

In the previous post we set a crossword grid from scratch, but clue-numbering remained to be done.

15x15 Crossword Grid, to be numbered

Here let's see how it is done.

Of course, there is no mystique about clue-numbering and any regular solver would know how it's done. Yet in crosswords published in small-time magazines in India I have seen many amateur setters not sticking to conventions. They number all Across clues sequentially and then the Down clues. Numbering in crosswords published in Indian language newspapers can be even more confusing.

The accepted practice is to start from the first blank cell and sequentially number all slots, whether Across or Down, where a solution word starts. Where the first letter of an Across word is the same as the first letter of a Down word, only one number is given.

Thus in the grid that we set, the first number will be in a1 (which is common for an Across word and a Down word).

Number 2 goes in c1, 3 in e1, 4 in g1. (These three are only Down words.)

Number 5 goes in i1 (the same number applying to the Across word as well as the Down word.)

While numbering, we should take care that we don't miss any cell that is in the perimeter or hemmed in by blocks elsewhere. (See a6, e8 or k10.)

After due numbering, the grid will look like this:

15x15 Crossword Grid, Numbered

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Make Your Own Crossword Grid

Our guest writer, Chaturvasi, describes the steps to create one’s own cryptic crossword grid from scratch, without the use of grid-generation software. At the end of this article, you will have with you a complete 15x15 grid that satisfies all good practices of checking, connectivity, symmetry and a balanced word length distribution.

Chaturvasi is the pseudonym of C. G. Rishikesh, who blogged on Tuesday FT crossword in  for more than a year. He is a frequent commenter in international forums where he is known by his short name, Rishi.

This author, who lives in Chennai that was Madras, is a published crossword setter.

This post is an attempt to compose a 15x15 blank grid for crossword purposes. While trying our hand at crossword composing, we could simply copy a published grid and put in our selection of lights and write clues. If we are using a crossword software, we have the choice of selecting one from its in-built library of grids. But this kills originality and deprives us of the pleasure of calling a crossword grid our own. (The one that we create may also have been arrived at by another, but that is a different matter.)

The basic pattern could be one of four:
Cryptic Crossword Grid: Basic Patterns 

We shall take pattern a and go on to construct a grid.

How-To-Create-Crossword-Grid: Step 2

Deciding that we will not have too-long entries (such as 13-, 14- or 15-letters) we first block 1h (where 1 is row and h is column). For symmetry we block also 15h.

We will move on to row 3. Here we block 3j. (As we did that, we might have had some reasons at the back of our mind. We avoided blocking 3b as it will give us three consecutive unches vertically in col. a; we avoided 3c because it will give two consecutive vertical/horizontal blanks and two-letter slots are no-nos). For symmetry we block 13f. If we are blocking 10th cell from left in row 3 from top, to achieve symmetry what we do is block 10th cell from right in row 3 from bottom.


Now the position is:


We again skip the row with alternate blacks and whites.

As four-letter lights are admissible, we block 5a, getting a four-letter slot in column a. This is first cell from left in fifth row from top. For symmetry, we block 11o, the first cell from right in the fifth row from bottom.

We notice that we have a long fourteen-letter slot in fifth row. As our aim is not to have long entries, we break it by blocking 5h. It is the eighth cell from left in fifth row from top; for symmetry, we block the eighth cell from right in fifth row from bottom. It is 11h.


The position is:


We skip sixth row with its blacks and whites.

In the next row we block 7e, whereby getting a nice design of blocks; for symmetry we block 9k. (Remember, if its fifth cell from left in seventh row from top, the symmetrical cell is fifth from right in seventh row from bottom.)

We have ten-letter lights in seventh and ninth rows but we retain them as there is a possibility of putting in long, but not too long, phrasal entries.

Having reached the middle row of our grid, we take a pause and re-examine the grid to see if there are any problems such as three or two consecutive unches. Not likely as we have taken care already.

The eighth or the middle row is one of alternate blacks and white. As usual we skip it.


Let's look at the position:


We have already reached an acceptable grid but we have four 15-letter slots. As our avowed objective is to avoid any slot with more than 10 letters, we shall have to see how to remedy the situation.

So far we have been looking only at all-white rows, carefully placing blocks to suit our purposes. We have reached the middle row of alternate blacks and whites and find that the rest of the rows are either one of alternate blacks and whites, or one where one or more cells have become blocks by virtue of symmetry.

That means to avoid the long 15-letter slots, we have to do any tinkering in any column with blocks as well as blanks.

Let's first take column c and see what we can do. Let's block 10c. This breaks the 15-letter slot and gives us two, one of 9 letters and the other of five letters.

We could block 4c but it gives a three-letter slot which we may avoid, though three-letter slots are admissible.

We could block 6c or 8c but the effect is not pleasing as it disturbs the two X designs in our grid.

Our decision to block 10c is a wise one and let's implement it. This is third from left in tenth row from top. As we have crossed the mid point, to achieve symmetry we go to the top half of the grid. We have to block 6m, the third cell from right in tenth row from bottom.


The position is:


Now we are left with only two 15-letter slots.

Let's take col g. We will not block 4g to avoid three-letter slot. We will not block 6g so that we don’t disturb our Xs. We can block 10g: this is the seventh cell from left in tenth row from top. For symmetry we block 6i, the seventh cell from right in tenth row from bottom. This gives us an L of blacks with another inverted L - familiar design in many a crossword grid.


The final position is:


The numbering of clue slots remains to be done. That will be taken up in a separate post. [Update: Follow-up to this article here – Numbering the clue slots in the grid.]

But an analysis of our grid might be done straightaway.

It has a total of 32 slots: 16 across and 16 down.

Of the 225 cells, 63 are blocked, while 162 are whites or blanks or letters to be filled in.

Word Length No. Of Words
4 letters 4
5 letters 6
6 letters 4
7 letters 6
8 letters 2
9 letters 6
10 letters 4


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Across Lite For Interactive Crosswords

Across Lite Many crosswords sites provide interactive puzzles in "Across format". This is to explain what the "Across format" is, and how to use it for solving crosswords interactively.

A puzzle in Across format is one that can be viewed and solved interactively with the software Across Lite. You can recognize an Across Lite puzzle by the .PUZ file extension.

What does Across Lite do?

For crossword solvers, Across Lite enables interactive solving. It works for .PUZ crosswords stored on the hard disk as well as crosswords opened directly from the web browser.

How can I use Across Lite?

Once you have installed Across Lite on your computer, any file in Across format will open with a mouse click. To open and solve the crossword, click to launch it with an interactive screen.

Show Me An Example

An example of a puzzle opened with Across Lite:

Economic Times Puzzle in Across Lite format

One of its interesting features is the Pen/Pencil tool. You can write in your answers with a Pen if you're confident, and a lighter-coloured Pencil if in doubt.

Other features include the facility to resize the grid, change the position of clue prompt, print the puzzle, etc. There are also Check/Reveal options, which get enabled if the crossword publisher has provided solutions with the puzzle.

Where can I get Across Lite?

Across Lite is owned by Literate Software Systems, and can be downloaded from here: Download Across Lite.

The installation is simple and quick, and is free for non-commercial use.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

What is a Nina?

This is the fifth instalment in a series of posts about crossword grids. Previous entries in the series: symmetry, checking, connectivity, pangrams.

A Nina is a special feature of the crossword grid: a word, words or phrase hidden within a pattern of cells in the completed grid.

An example from an Indy crossword: the words STALACTITE and STALAGMITE are concealed vertically, in symmetrical positions.

Nina in Independent 6996 (Mordred)

Why is it called a Nina?

Many think "Nina" is an acronym. It isn't.

The word comes from Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), American caricaturist, who was famous for hiding his daughter's name "Nina" into his drawings. Wikipedia says:

The name would appear in a sleeve, in a hairdo, or somewhere in the background. Sometimes "Nina" would show up more than once and Hirschfeld would helpfully add a number next to his signature, to let people know how many times her name would appear.

Hirschfeld's artwork is here, I've strained my eyes trying to spot Ninas in the online images. Can you see any? He started the trend in 1945, the year his daughter was born, so look for artwork created post-1945.

Crossword setters then brought Ninas into the realm of crosswords. If you happen to know which publication/setter started the trend, do write a comment about it.

Update (24-Mar-2011): Thanks to Peter Biddlecombe for sharing with me what is possibly the oldest Nina, from the Times crossword of July 1967. Nowadays Ninas occur quite often in the Independent crossword, and occasionally in the Guardian and FT. I haven't yet come across one in the Times, or in any of the Indian crosswords.

There have been Ninas in Indian crossword grids since this article was written. THC 9729 of 1st Jan 2010 was the first. Though rare, there have also been themes and Ninas in the Times crossword.

Ninas and Solvability

As with pangrams, the existence of a Nina is not announced – you'll miss it if you don't actively look for it.

A Nina could help you fill up faster if you catch on to it before filling up the grid, but experience tells me that rarely happens. Ninas are even subtler than pangrams. You generally finish the crossword before the "Ah!" moment of seeing the Nina arrives.

Spot the Nina?

Find the Nina in this grid from another Independent crossword. Post your answer in the comments section. I'll publish comments after two days so that the answer isn't revealed until you've all had a go.

(The Independent is a great crossword by the way. On the challenging side, very innovative. Their daily crossword can be found online here.)

Independent 7150 (Monk) 
                           Independent 7150 (Monk)

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why BENGALI = BENGAL + I doesn't fly

Take Nita Jaggi's clue from The Hindu Crossword 9649:

5 Indian state has one official language (7)
The parsing is:
Indian state = BENGAL
has = connector
one = I
Definition: official language = BENGAL + I = BENGALI

The clue has a meaningful surface, cryptic elements correctly placed and indicated. Technically all looks okay (ignore for now that the clue may have more than one correct answer). Why, then, is it a bad clue?

The essence of a cryptic clue lies in creative play on words, and in misleading/surprising the solver. None of these hold true when the subsidiary indication and the definition share the same root word.

The word BENGALI is derived from BENGAL; there's nothing very creative or exciting about splitting it into BENGAL + I.

Therefore, a weak clue. Etymologically-related constructs like (BAT + S = BATS) or (ADMIRE– E + ABLE = ADMIRABLE), when used to clue charades, are flaws in my book.

The Other Extreme

The other equally uncreative extreme is breaking the answer into the tiniest bits and combining them using abbreviations. Nita Jaggi favours this as well – refer Charade Overdose.

A sample from the same puzzle (THC 9649):
To inspire one doctor you see at last (5) I MB U E

More Weak Wordplay, What Say?

What do you think of of the clues below? Good wordplay, or not? If not good, why not?

Eaten up and taken in eagerly (8) DEVOURED [2]
Finally, students are able to read quickly (4) S CAN

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