The crossword was invented in 1913 by Arthur Wynne, a British journalist living in New York, and from there it evolved differently in the United States and the United Kingdom. This has led to various differences in these puzzles, depending on where you live.
In England and Commonwealth countries, two varieties of crossword exist: The non-cryptic or quick crossword, which has definition or synonym clues, and the cryptic crossword, which is devious and difficult (and the reason you’re reading this book!).
The words included in British-style crosswords, both quick and cryptic, tend to be ‘normal’ words, from a very wide (and occasionally archaic) vocabulary, proper names, the occasional foreign word and some abbreviations. In general, crossword setters try to avoid ‘unpleasant’ words in their grids — including names of lethal or severe diseases, sexual terms, gory words, swear words or racial slurs. These are thought to be poor form. Many British-style crosswords include a letter count at the end of the clue in brackets.
British-style crossword grids have a higher proportion of black to white squares than American grids. Quick crosswords have around 25 per cent black squares, and cryptic have around 35 per cent black squares. They are based on a sort of chequerboard pattern, with symmetrical grids.
British-style crossword grids are seen worldwide, especially in Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa.
In the United States, a nearly solid ‘white’ grid, with very few black squares, is most common. American crosswords often include brand names, abbreviations, slang, foreign words, sections of phrases, suffixes, prefixes and even word fragments. The grid structure dictates this sometimes odd assortment of letters — creating a completely overlapping grid of words is very hard, after all! The figure included with this sidebar shows a section of an American-style crossword grid.
American crosswords often have a theme and a title, which provides a clue to the theme. Generally the three to five theme entries are the longest words in the puzzle, and are placed symmetrically within the grid. American clues are quite varied, ranging from straight definitions to puns, quasi-cryptic clues and plenty of hard ‘quiz’ clues. While the straight definition clues are basically the same style as British quick (non-cryptic) crossword clues, the other varieties of clues often trip up those who aren’t used to them! American clues don’t have the letter count at the end — which generally makes the clue more difficult, because you don’t get an indication of whether the answer contains more than one word, or whether it’s hyphenated.
While a few newspapers in the United States do publish cryptic crosswords, they’re rare. American cryptics also use the British-style grid, with a higher proportion of black squares. This has led to a misconception in America that only cryptics have this sort of grid. Both American and British crosswords have sets of rules that setters have to follow: The grids need to be symmetrical, and one- and two-letter words aren’t allowed. On top of this, many other clue-writing conventions also exist.
Neither the American nor British crossword is better or worse than the other; they’re just different and both styles are challenging in their own ways. One thing to keep in mind when solving cryptics is that you don’t need quite as many checked letters, because every cryptic clue provides two ways of finding the answer!