Thursday, August 18, 2011

Verb Phrase as Definition for Noun

subject-verb-agreement The grammar of cryptic clues requires that the definition should match the part of speech of the answer. So an adjective as definition must lead to an adjective as the solution, and not something like a verb or noun.

Such a clue will not do:

THC 10223 (M Manna): In disturbed state turn towards perceptive person (6) ASTUTE U (turn) in (STATE)*
The definition "perceptive person" suggests a noun, but the answer ASTUTE is an adjective.

The definition may appear to be in a different part of speech so as to lead the solver astray, as in the next clue:

THC 10223 (M Manna): Making bad move, lose when winning (8) LOVESOME (MOVE LOSE)*
"winning" passes off as a verb on the clue's surface but is actually an adjective, and so it matches the answer LOVESOME.

It is part of the setter's game to disguise the definition but ultimately, when read the right way, the definition and the solution must tally in meaning and part of speech.

That is the rule. This is the exception.
A special allowance is made when a verb phrase defines a noun that could be its subject. Here's such a clue by Don Manley:

Guardian 24590 (Pasquale): Politician caught in trick covers head (6) WIMPLE
MP (politician) in WILE (trick)
WIMPLE, a noun, is not a synonym for "covers head" but the clue is considered valid since the two fit into the sentence "WIMPLE covers head".

This style of definition is probably not Ximenean but even very fair crosswords like the Azed allow it. On the topic of cryptic clue grammar, setter Azed (Jonathan Crowther) says in his book A-Z of Crosswords:

I make an exception in the case of verb phrases as clues to nouns that could stand as their subjects: 'wags its tail and is man’s best friend' is therefore acceptable in defining DOG, whereas 'furry and four-legged' on its own is not.

This clue from The Hindu of 1st Aug 2011, which led to a lot of debate among solvers, falls into the same bracket:

THC 10221 (M Manna): Bird dogs get drunk (9) COCKTAILS
COCK (bird) TAILS (dogs, verb)

COCKTAILS get drunk (i.e. consumed). So the answer fits as a subject of the verb-phrase definition.

Incidentally, Roger Squires wrote the same clue in the early 1990s and used it in three of the British main papers, including the Times. Their crossword editors found it proper for publishing.

Such clues follow the usual English rules of subject-verb agreement. Since COCKTAILS is a plural noun, the definition can only be a plural verb form; a definition like "gets drunk" would not have worked with COCKTAILS.

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Chaturvasi said...

Re the clue 'Bird dogs get drunk':

You haven't dwelt on its surface reading. I would think it is not from the animal world! Could dogs have got a bird drunk, I ask.

I think the word 'bird' means 'girl' and 'dogs' means 'mean scoundrels'.

What the rascals did to the girl after they plied her with drinks is beyond the scope of my note.

Shuchi said...

I'm sure the setter was only referring to this bird dog :)

Shyam said...

Some more from M Manna:

THC 9668:

Last month’s speaker has room for improvement (9) DEC ORATOR

Rail workers take me back to mountain in Germany (9) {NUR}{EM<-}{BERG}

I guess using "in somewhere" to define another place is quite common.

anax said...

Good subject to cover, Shuchi.

I was quite surprised to read the Jonathan Crowther quote, as his example of an ‘acceptable’ definition is the sort of thing I really don’t like to see in a crossword clue.

We all take different approaches, of course, but the yardstick I tend use is the principle of ‘Can this definition be directly substituted for the answer in an everyday sentence?’ – I really can’t imagine “I bought a dog today” being the same as “I bought a wags its tail and is man’s best friend today”. All of the grammar and syntax falls to pieces.

Coincidentally, not so long ago I themed an Independent puzzle on locations in London, so in the original draft all of the relevant clues included ‘in London’ as a pointer to the answer. All of these had to be edited because Eimi didn’t like ‘in XXX’ as a definition for a location’s name. And he’s quite right. Tottenham is in London but you can’t say that ‘in London’ is the sort of thing you might read as a dictionary definition or as a part of speech that can be validly substituted. “I went to Tottenham” = “I went to in London”? No, not for me.