Saturday 18 July 2009

Thoughts On Connectors


A few days ago, maddy wrote a comment with pertinent questions about the use of connectors in cryptic clues: "…how much is too much?? What is acceptable and what is not??"

As I see it, there is no single correct answer. There's a lot of ground that fair setters will agree on but sometimes it's a matter of taste than rules for right-wrong. Here are some of my thoughts on this. But first things first.

What are connectors?

For those new to cryptic crosswords, connectors are those words in a clue that give meaning to its surface but are superfluous to its cryptic meaning.

For example:
THC 9583 (Sankalak): Dress that, with time, becomes rubbish (7) GARB AGE
The above is a charade in which only the elements "Dress time rubbish" play an active role in the wordplay, the rest is padding. The clue needs the remaining words for its facade or surface, but the wordplay can easily do without them.

In contrast, here's another clue from Sankalak that has no connectors:

THC 9584 (Sankalak): Sad, yet somehow unwavering (6) STEADY*
"Sad yet" is the anagram fodder, "somehow" the anagrind and "unwavering" the definition. No padding.

Fair Connectors

Words that link the wordplay and solution in the following forms are considered valid quite universally:

[wordplay] is
leading to
to get
[solution] is
given by
derived from

Things begin to get fuzzy when link words creep inside the wordplay. The most acceptable kinds are words like 'and' between charade components, or articles before common nouns.

Some examples of connectors inside the wordplay, which I think are all right:

Sunday Times 4295: [Animation with cello playing] is [soothing stuff] (8,6) CALAMINE LOTION*
THC 9506 (Gridman): [Bill has a levy] for [admission] (6) AC CESS

How much is too much?

The answer lies not in the count but in the role played by the connectors. A connector must connect – i.e. link together the wordplay in the direction of the solution, not detract from the solution.

Ask: Does the connector change the real meaning of the clue, giving no logical path to the answer? Is the only way to solve the clue by ignoring the connector?

If the answer is "yes", then even one connector is too much.

Let's revisit Sankalak's first clue again.
Dress that, with time, becomes rubbish (7)

Parsing it gives this format:
[charade component 1] that with [charade component 2] becomes [solution]

Three connectors, but all coherently come together leading to the answer. The clue says what it means, however deviously it may say it. That's a core requirement for fair clueing, and this clue passes gracefully in spite of being 50%-full of connectors.

Take this clue now:

THC 9577 (Neyartha): Cook pate stew too with edible root (5,6) SWEET POTATO*

Simple enough anagram, with one connector only. But is it an acceptable connector?

Parsing it gives this format:
[anagrind] [anagram fodder] with [solution]

This does not provide a logical path to the answer, the only way to make sense of the clue is by dropping the connector. That's a flaw that fair setters would try to avoid.

In Closing…

I'll hasten to add an analogy from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which I'm reading currently with great interest.

Talking about plane crashes, Gladwell illustrates that crashes rarely happen because of huge catastrophic failures – engine parts do not explode in a fiery bang, the rudder doesn't suddenly snap. Crashes are more likely to be the result of trivial malfunctions/errors that on their own would not cause accidents, calamity strikes when a bunch of such errors occur all at once.

The same holds true for cryptic clues. Superfluous connectors by themselves do not spoil the clue totally – at least for me. If the rest is fine, I will not even notice while solving. But when combined with complicated wordplay, poorly checked grid or a vague definition for a hard word – that spells c-r-a-s-h.

Coming Up

I was writing more about the same connector being unequal in different clues, but that's making this article too long. So will follow up soon with a separate post. Hang on!

Update: Here's the follow-up post: Same Connector, Unequal Impact.

Meanwhile, give some thought to the connectors in these clues. What do you say? Completely fair, just pass muster or unfair?

THC 9564 (Gridman): Emotion attains a different range (5)
THC 9536 (Gridman): New slates smashed? But that’s known to me already! (5,4)
THC 9547 (Neyartha): Tractor operator does firmware development out of Wisconsin (6)

Related Posts:

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maddy said...

Thanks shuchi for the post. It was insightful, as your posts always are. It also reinforced most of my opinions about the issue. It's always reassuring when one's views are endorsed by an expert ( now, need not get unduly modest and claim that you are no expert:) ).
Regarding the clues you have quoted, I dont find anything glaringly wrong with the connectors used. BUt then, that maybe because you have given the setters' name and i am subconciously prejudiced courtesy their proven track record. Incidentally, Gladwell, whom you have quoted, talks a lot about prejudices and the 'Halo effect' in 'Blink'. May be my reaction would have been different if you had quoted a similar clue with NJ's byline :) . I see this somewhat reverse Halo effect happening these days, where relatively fair clues of NJ ( yes there are some...) which would have passed muster under other setters' bylines are sometimes maligned and overanalysed by solvers. ( *DISCLAIMER* Iam not endorsing NJ nor am I by any stretch of imagination her fan, Shuchi would know better :) ). Coming back to the clues....

THC 9564 (Gridman): Emotion attains a different range (5) ANGER - This looks perfectly OK.I may be wrong but the clue gets a semi &lit feel due to the connector.

THC 9536 (Gridman): New slates smashed?But that’s known to me already! (5,4) STALE NEWS - Didnt like the clue but straightforward enough to ignore the somewhat misleading 'but'.It doesnt add to the clue though...

THC 9547 (Neyartha): Tractor operator does firmware development out of Wisconsin (6) - FARMER - I remember, this particular clue was stripped bare on THC orkut community, with clarifications coming straight from the horse's mouth. Though i still have my issues about the clue, the connector is not one of them.

To summarise,I think Aristotle was talking about crossword clues when he said "The whole is more than the sum of it's parts" :)

N.B - It is interesting that Malcolm Gladwell also talks about connectors in 'The Tipping Point', though in a different context. According to him connectors are people who "link us up with the world",People with extraordinary communication and social networking skills who form a part of the working 20 % in 'The law of the few'. Though, both his earlier books made for good reading, at times I found his writings a bit contrived and not as original as say in books of similar genre like Freakonomics, writings of Taleb, Alvin Tofler etc. I am yet to read Outliers. Do you recommend it??

Chaturvasi said...

New slates smashed? But that’s known to me already! (5,4)

I believe that 'but' here does have a role to play. You have to imagine that a speaker mockingly repeats three words that he has just heard someone say and with a 'you're telling me!' attitude adds the rest of the sentence.

Anonymous said...

Emotion attains a different range (5)
Looking at the clue, it appears that the definition is not simply 'Emotion'
and so &lit, as already mentioned by Maddy.

New slates smashed? But that’s known to me already! (5,4)
To me 'but' doesn't look like unwanted connector, agree with Vasi sir.

Tractor operator does firmware development out of Wisconsin (6)
Here 'does' is not a connector but part of anagrind and fodder can be clearly identified.
But out of WI doesn't indicate subtraction.

Shuchi said...

Thanks for your comments on the clues. Very interesting to hear different views. I'll post mine later, I hope more readers will come along and have their say.

About Outliers: I found it engaging, provocative at times. Much like Gladwell's earlier work. There are some critical reviews on Amazon about the book with the "unoriginal" tag being tossed around in plenty. I have not read too much in the genre so I cannot say, many of the ideas were new to me and gave me food for thought.

I think Gladwell has a nice way with words and he picks great examples to support his theories. Even if I didn't end up entirely agreeing with all he said, time reading was time well-spent.

Let's keep further discussion about the book away from the blog :) Email? My id is towards the end of the FAQ page.

Anonymous said...

Well in today's THC, Gridmann used 'without' in the meaning 'out of...'

Considering the reverse, 'out of WI' in Neyathra's clue, does indicate 'lacking WI'.

Shuchi said...

On the THC community, I remember Neyartha had stepped in and clarified the use of this indicator.

"X out of Y", as in, "printer out of ink", implies "Y is deleted from X". Makes sense.

Anonymous said...

You put, what I mean, precisely.
And as for:
.... does [fodder] develeopemnt...
I don't see any problem, 'does' doesn't appear to be a connector and fodder is very well identified.

Am learning and improving I guess :) Thanks to THCS and your blog! Now while attempting to solve THC, word play isn't so much limitation as it used to be earlier. (Though I still get stuck with word play in quite a few clues. Am just comparing myself now and myself a couple of months ago).

Shuchi said...

Tractor operator does firmware development out of Wisconsin (6)

Neyartha's parsing was:
Tractor operator - definition
does - Connector
Firmware - Anagram fodder
development - Anagrind
out of - Deletion indicator
Wisconsin - WI gets deleted
yields FARMER{-wi}*

When this clue was published we were all caught up so much with the definition and indicator, we didn't give thought to the connector. It didn't bother because it was easy to ignore.

Yet it is one of those connectors that don't logically connect the definition and wordplay in the cryptic reading. FARMER is an outcome of "firmware development out of WI", the "does" doesn't fit.

Nevera said...

I know I'm a little late to this party but stumbled across this thread while doing a little rsearch on connectors. In the tractor operator clue, I parse it as:
Tractor operator (answer) DOES firmware development (fodder/anagrind) OUT OF Wisconsin (WI removed), in the sense of cheating someone, similar to the way one might say that a person DOES another OUT OF a prize.
e.g., Huntress DOES aide in a mess OUT OF extreme inheritance (5)
It's a little uninspired but illustrates my meaning: Diana (answer) DOES aide in a (fodder) mess (anagrind) OUT OF extreme inheritance (IE removed). I hadn't come across this clue before but shall definitely consider using the format in a future setting.

Roy Leban said...

Just happened to run across this. I disagree on

Dress that, with time, becomes rubbish (7)

I think the clue can be improved greatly by dropping "that". It is not necessary and "that with" is not a phrase on its own so I do not view it as a valid connector.

Dress, with time, becomes rubbish (7)

has better surface (reads more like something somebody would say), is slightly easier, and does not use a non-grammatical connector.