Anatomy of a Crossword Clue

If you're new to the world of crosswords, here are some crossword clue tips that should help you find your way around the grid.

I'll use a real published puzzle to illustrate each crossword clue principle. I've chosen a relatively easy puzzle (#65) from the New York Times publication Little Black & White Book of Crosswords, edited by Will Shortz. I've chosen that book partly because it happens to be on my bookshelf, but primarily because Will Shortz is the editor of the New York Times crossword, and is a renowned perfectionist when it comes to the art of cluing.


Crossword constructors have several conventions they use to indicate to the solver that the answer to a clue is an abbreviation. The most obvious convention is to follow the clue with the tag 'Abbr.'. Two other common abbreviation indicators are 'for short' and 'briefly'. In our example, the clue for 1 Down (having 3 letters) is...

[Promgoers: Abbr.]

The answer is SRS - the abbreviation for Seniors.

More sneakily, and a lot more fun, clues will sometimes indicate that an abbreviation is expected by using an abbreviation in the clue itself. The clue for 23 Across, for example, is...

[Lawyers' org.]

The use of 'Org.' as an abbreviation for 'Organization' indicates that the answer will be an abbreviation for a body of lawyers. The answer is ABA, which stands for the American Bar Association.


A partial is a crossword clue where the answer consists of a part of a well-known phrase or expression, but is not meaningful (or at least 'clueable') by itself. Sound like gobbledygook? Let's look at 36 Across (5 letters) as an example...

["Don't ___ it!"]

The answer is BETON, as in 'Don't bet on it!'.

Looking at the solution grid for a crossword containing partials can give the impression that crosswords are made up of nonsense words. They are generally considered to be a bit inelegant, so you won't see too many of them in a good crossword, but they occur frequently enough that you'll need to get used to them.


The standard convention for newspaper crosswords is to start each crossword clue with a capital letter. Constructors sometimes use this in a devious way to 'disguise' a true capitalization. Here's a good example...

[Nice jacket material]

The alert clue solver should be suspicious about the seemingly redundant and subjective adjective starting the clue. By starting the clue with 'Nice', the constructor has disguised the fact that it does not refer to the adjective but rather to the French city!

This is intended to signify that the jacket material has a French name. The answer is indeed SUEDE.


With very few exceptions, clues need to agree with their answers in every grammatical aspect (tense, number, person, etc.). Sometimes constructors use this fact to trick you, but most of the time it can be used to help you.

Let's take 13 Down (5 letters) as our example. The clue is...

[Struck out]

The word ERASE might jump out at you. A little more thought, though, reveals a tense mismatch. 'Struck' is in the past tense, which would require the answer to be ERASED, which has one too many letters. It's time to change tack. It turns out the correct answer is DELED.


In the world of crossword puzzles, wordplay refers to the cruel practice of misleading the solver with a play on words which renders the clue almost, but not quite, literal. Usually designed to give both a challenge and a chuckle, the solver is usually forewarned that wordplay is lurking by ending the clue with a question mark.

Let's take 4 Down (4 letters) as an example...

[Baby carrier?]

The answer? WOMB! True enough - but not the sort of definition you'd find in a dictionary. For many crossword solvers, wordplay is the whole point.

Return to Crossword Help Line from Crossword Clue

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