Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On clues that reveal too much

Some time ago, this question came up on the Hindu crossword forum:

Isn't there a limit to the length of the word that is given gratis in a clue?

THC 9575 (M.Manna): Editor accepted strange way to be removed (9) E{STRANGE}D

Sometimes we might get a, the or similar small components without our having to scratch our heads for it.
But a seven-letter word?
What do you think?

A clue that divulges a large chunk of the solution without some form of 'encoding' is generally considered defective.

What’s wrong with reusing part of the clue in the answer?

The commonly associated reasons –

  1. It makes solving too easy to be enjoyable for the solver
  2. It shows that the clue-writer has not worked hard enough to make the clue suitably cryptic

These objections are certainly valid for the bulk of clues with this property.

Revisiting the quoted Manna clue:
THC 9575 (M.Manna): Editor accepted strange way to be removed (9) E{STRANGE}D
"strange" is directly taken from the clue into the answer. This is jarring, since the setter could have easily used another word in its place without loss of meaning.

A second example, the unbeatable classic in which the full solution is revealed in the clue.
[If ever a compilation is made of the worst clues published in a national daily, this will be a strong contender for the top position.]
THC 9370 (Nita Jaggi): A different diet, combined into one for the United Nations (6) UNITED

In poor clues, the appearance of a large portion of the answer in the clue is usually not its only problem, as the clues above exemplify.

But consider this.

What if…

  1. the clue has other forms of complexity, such as a lateral definition, which makes it not-so-simple even if the wordplay exposes much of the answer?
  2. the clue-writer has carefully considered possibilities and then concluded that the surface is the most compelling with the portion given as-is, than with any replacement?

Examples where the clue is better because of the letters given free

A clue by Afrit:
This looks like a serious shortage, and a penny less would look like nothing on earth! (6) 
Solution: DEARTH. A penny (D) less makes it EARTH, which is nothing on EARTH.
The beauty of this clue lies in the clever use of the idiom "like nothing on earth". A simple replacement won't work here – it can't be rewritten as "like nothing on a planet". The clue may be easy, but isn't it better easy & witty, than tough & dull?

Another clue, by dram from Anax's clue-writing contests:
Tomb originally raided by the young Lara Croft perhaps? (6)
Solution: TOMBOY. TOMB + OY, 'raided' indicating removing the insides of 'OriginallY'.  
One could argue that "TOMB" makes up more than 50% of the answer, and knock off points for that. What a pity that would be. This clue, brilliantly themed after the Tomb Raider video games/films, will be butchered if we conform to some rule about word segment lengths and substitute "tomb" with a synonym.

In Closing

The real issue is not with the solution being spelt out in the clue, it is with the clue not being challenging enough or entertaining enough. As long as the setter can address those concerns and create a satisfying solving experience, why then should this be treated as a flaw?

Instead of thinking of parameters like "what percentage of letters can the setter give away gratis", let's look at the overall effect of the clue and not bind it to unyielding standards of technical precision.

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3 comments

abhinav said...

in the sunday times recently this was the clue.whatha think ? reveals too much ?

Not those, Incomplete theses (5)

ans: these

I didnt know quite what to make of it.

Shuchi said...

Hi abhinav,

It does reveal too much, doesn't it...and the neat split in the middle makes it a total giveaway.

Which Sunday Times is the clue from, the TOI or Times UK?

Chaturvasi said...

In any case why the comma there?

The clue would read better and add a little bit of perplexity without the punctuation mark.

I think the capitalisation of i in 'incomplete' is a typo.

I too would like to know the source of the clue without any ambiguity.