Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Significance of ’s in Cryptic Clues

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Apostrophe-s plays a varied role in the English language. It can be used to

  1. Mark possession e.g. Tom's eyes are shining with excitement.
  2. Contract 'is' e.g. Tom's solving the Guardian crossword.
  3. Contract 'has' e.g. Tom's completed the whole puzzle.

Crossword setters use the changeable nature of 's to create illusions in cryptic clues. They achieve this by making 's suggest one thing on the surface, and mean something else in the cryptic reading of the clue.

The next few sections show the shift in meaning of 's in the two readings of a clue.

Possessive -> Has
FT 13137 (Viking): Threaten one politician’s ambition (6)

On the surface, "politician's" is the possessive form ("threaten the ambition of one politician"), but in the cryptic reading the phrase becomes "politician has ambition". The answer is IMPEND: a charade of I (one), MP (politician), END (ambition), with "has" as connector between MP and END.

Possessive -> Is
FT 13137 (Viking): Dance tune’s wrong note at start (6)

On the surface, "tune's" is in the possessive form ("wrong note of tune"), but it needs to be read it as "tune is wrong …" to arrive at the answer. The answer is MINUET: MI (note) NUET (anagram of TUNE).

Is –> Has
FT 13331 (Alberich): Could be a proton, for example, that's not positive (7)

[One of my favourite clues in the recent times] The surface suggests "…that is not positive", but the cryptic sense is "that has not positive". The answer is ARTICLE (defn: Could be 'a'): PARTICLE (proton, for example) - P (positive).

Is –> Possessive
Sunday Times 4337: Volatile liquid’s excellent accompaniment for gin (8)

The surface seems to say - "Volatile liquid is excellent accompaniment …", but actually apostrophe-s has to be read as the possessive. The definition is "volatile liquid's", the answer is ACETONIC: ACE (excellent) TONIC (accompaniment for gin).

No transform 
's need not always be a connector/indicator. It could be a part of the answer. As in this clue:

Times 24501: European King a small tome's recalled (6)

We might think that "is recalled" will act as a reversal indicator. It turns out that the reversal indicator is just "recalled" and 's is used as-is in the answer. The answer is SLOVAK: K (king) A VOL's (small tome's), all reversed.

Closing Words

Apostrophe-s can have a range of meanings in cryptic clues. What appears to be "is" could be "has", "has" could be the possessive form or the possessive form could be "has" or "is" – several permutations are possible. Don't let the setter trick you into making assumptions!

While we're on the topic, I must share with you this clue by Roger Squires (Rufus) about the apostrophe. What a brilliant &lit.

Punctuation mark perhaps too freely used (10)

Solve These

A selection of clues that make creative use of the apostrophe-s. Post your answers in the comments section.

Times 24502: Magic's usual fob off (8)
Guardian 24907 (Chifonie): Penny's about to ward off publicity (6)
Times 22569: This writer’s penning line: children’s writer? (5)

Answers will be updated 3 days after date of posting.


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anokha said...

Punctuation mark perhaps too freely used (10) APOSTROPHE*

Times 24502: Magic's usual fob off (8) FABULOUS*
Guardian 24907 (Chifonie): Penny's about to ward off publicity (6) A(D)VERT

Shuchi said...

Well done, anokha!

Hint for the remaining one: the definition is "children's writer".

anokha said...


Shuchi said...


MINE (this writer’s) around L (line)

anokha said...

Was caught between MILNE and TWAIN ('coz of the PEN name) .......

These are way more interesting to tackle than going anywhere near NJ's clues :)

Shuchi said...

Absolutely :)

anax said...

Hi Shuchi - thanks for including my Times clue ;o)

I have to say the APOSTROPHE clue is just brilliant. For those outside the UK, we have a "rogue apostrophe" disease here, the semi-literate constantly using them where they don't belong. For some reason it seems endemic in the catering trade, so you'll see menu items such as "chip's and bean's". This clue is a superbly observed social comment.

Shuchi said...

Hi anax, So that was yours? With all the wicked wordplay and JAZZ in the first answer of the crossword, I had half-guessed :)

The apostrophe disease is rampant in India too! I remember our childhood favourite fast-food joint, that sold "Chini's food".

tbhart18 said...

Hey I need help with a couple of clues:
it's right in 'Front ' of you

The ONLY clue you'll get is here. Simon Tugs At

Any ideas what these could mean?