Becoming Familiar with SomePuzzle Components

I want to first explain a few basics about how crossword puzzles are constructed. Maybe you’ve never thought about it before, but puzzle constructors follow some strict rules when they sit down to create new puzzles. I’m not just talking about the fact that some clues are labeled “Across” because their answers are written horizontally on the crossword grid, and some clues are labeled “Down” because their answers are entered vertically on the grid. The rules they follow are a bit more complicated than that and knowing them provides information you can use to develop your own crossword-solving strategy.

Here are a few key rules:

  • ✓ Each crossword puzzle grid is a perfect square and is perfectly symmetrical. In other words, the pattern of black and white squares is the same if you look at the puzzle right-side-up and upside-down. These facts don’t affect how you solve the puzzle, but they’re part of what makes a crossword puzzle a thing of beauty.
  • ✓ On a crossword puzzle grid, you shouldn’t encounter any unchecked squares — white squares that are used in an Across entry but not in a Down entry, or vice versa. If unchecked squares were allowed, that would make your life harder — you’d have only one opportunity to figure out what belongs in that square. Instead, you always get two chances to fill a square: by solving the Across clue or the Down clue.
  • ✓ The phrasing of the clues largely determines the difficulty of the puzzle. The answers themselves may be words you use every day, but the clues may or may not lead you directly to the answers. That’s part of the beauty of making crosswords: The puzzle constructor can be straightforward or extremely creative and oblique, depending on how easy or difficult a puzzle needs to be. And that’s part of the beauty of working crosswords: The more time you spend with a particular puzzle, the more familiar you’ll become with how the puzzle constructor is phrasing the clues.
  • ✓ Each clue should be the same part of speech as its answer. Puzzle constructors aren’t perfect, and sometimes they mess up this rule, but in general you can rely on this being true. If the clue calls for a verb, the answer will be a verb.
  • ✓ No clue should contain a significant word that appears in its answer. For example, “Chicago Sox” would be a lousy clue for the answer WHITESOX.

Identifying Specific Types of Hints and Clues

In any crossword puzzle, you’re bound to find various types of clues. In the following sections, I explain some of the most common types you’ll encounter and offer hints for solving them.

Filling in blanks

The fill-in-the-blank clue is often the easiest type to solve, which is why I mention it first. The clue usually takes the form of a familiar phrase or a title (of a book, movie, play, or TV show, for example). The puzzle constructor has left out one or more words from the phrase or title, and she uses an underline to indicate where those words are missing. Here’s an example: “A Tale ___ Cities.” Even if you haven’t read Dickens for years, you may recall that the novel referenced here is A Tale of Two Cities. That means the answer to this clue is OFTWO, and that’s what you’d write in the crossword grid.

Answering trivia

The trivia clue is often another fairly easy type of clue to answer. That’s because if you don’t know the answer to a trivia clue, you can probably find it if you’re willing to use outside resources. For example, you may see a clue like “2008 best-director brothers” or “Ben Franklin birthplace.” If you don’t know that the COENS won the 2008 Oscar for their direction of No Country for Old Men or that Franklin was born in BOSTON, chances are you can find out by going online or to the right printed resources. As I explain in the upcoming section “Gathering Your Resources,” some people refuse to use outside resources because they think doing so is equivalent to cheating. I respectfully disagree. Using outside resources is part of the process of increasing your reservoir of knowledge. Ideally, the more puzzles you work, the more information you’ll have stored in your brain, and the less frequently you’ll need to turn to books or Web sites for help. But I see no shame in using these resources when you need them. Punning around This type of clue can be fairly challenging, depending on how the puzzle constructor phrases it. Unlike with a trivia clue, you probably won’t get much help from outside resources to solve puns; you’ll be left to your own creative thinking. The pun clue is often (but not always) followed by a question mark to indicate that a play on words is at hand. Consider this example: The clue is “What cows dance to?” and the answer is MOOSIC. (Feel free to groan.)

Playing with descriptions

The puzzle constructor can get really creative here because there are endless ways to describe a single word or phrase. To get the answer ORANGE, for example, you might see a clue as simple as “Citrus fruit,” which would require that you eliminate other possibilities (such as lemon, grapefruit, and lime) in order to arrive at the right answer. But the puzzle constructor could also pose a more oblique clue, such as “Rhyme eluder,” which would require that you understand he’s referring to a word that doesn’t lend itself easily to rhymes. “Poodle” and “Dog” (a poodle is a breed of dog), you can determine that your answer is HORSE. Figuring out abbreviations Answers can sometimes be abbreviations, and the clues should let you know that. An obvious way for the puzzle constructor to tip you off is for the clue to include “Abbr.” For example, the answer to “U.S. central bank: Abbr.” would be FED (instead of FEDERALRESERVE). Another way that the puzzle constructor can indicate an abbreviation is required is by using an abbreviation within the clue itself. For example, in the sample puzzle shown later in this chapter, the clue for 37 Across is “Hosp. aides.” The fact that you see “Hosp.” instead of “Hospital” tells you that the answer will be an abbreviation (RNAS).

Speaking a foreign language

Just as the puzzle constructor has to let you know when an answer should be an abbreviation, he also must let you know if the answer should be in a foreign language. And as with abbreviations, he has a variety of ways to do so. If the answer is supposed to be in French, you may see one of the following in the clue:

  • ✓ The tag “(Fr.)”: The answer to “Love (Fr.)” would be AMOUR, for example. This type of clue is rarely used nowadays.
  • ✓ Where the answer would likely be heard: The answer to the clue “Love in Paris” would also be AMOUR.
  • ✓ Another word or phrase from the same language: To arrive at AMOUR, you may see “Love, s’il vous plait,” for example.

Gathering Your Resources

Let’s get real: Most of us can’t work a crossword puzzle without a little outside help. Or a lot of it. Even fairly easy crossword puzzles are bound to contain a few clues that stump you. And when you build up the courage to work on the toughies, well . . . you may feel like you’re doing battle. And no one should go into battle alone. Thanks to the Web, the number of resources available to you while you’re working a puzzle is pretty much infinite. But that doesn’t mean I recommend entering the key words in every clue into a search engine to see where they lead you. Not only does that suck the fun out of puzzling, but it’ll also probably lead you astray about 95 percent of the time. Instead, I recommend that you spend some time gathering a handful of key resources that you’re likely to use again and again. Whether you prefer online resources or the hard-copy versions, here are some I suggest you keep handy:

  • ✓ A dictionary (particularly a crossword dictionary)
  • ✓ A slang dictionary
  • ✓ A thesaurus
  • ✓ A quotation resource
  • ✓ An atlas
  • ✓ An almanac

After you have known the basics, you can start by trying “Crossword Daily: Word Puzzle” on yuor smart phone.

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