Why do some clues have a question mark when they're not questions?

by Sharon

In a crossword I'm trying to solve there is a clue [West End?], but it isn't a question! So why is there a question mark?

Hi Sharon - This is a common practice in American style crossword puzzles. The question mark is intended to warn you that the answer relies on some wordplay, so that the clue shouldn't be taken too literally.

NOTE — I follow the common convention of using square brackets, [...], to indicate crossword clues. The brackets do not appear in the actual crossword clues.

Unfortunately, you haven't mentioned the length of the answer to the crossword clue [West End?], but I'm going to hazard a guess that the answer has three letters. If so, I would put my money on the answer being ERN. Why?

Well, because ERN can be added to the End of West to make the word Western. The word 'End' in a crossword clue is often used to mean 'can be added to the end of'. When used in this way, a question mark will often be used to let you know that the clue is not looking for a direct synonym.

Crossword constructors pride themselves on their ability to come up with original punny clues to liven up their puzzles, and to make them more challenging.

Meanwhile, crossword solvers pride themselves on being able to decode them. When I interviewed a champion crossword solver a while back, for example, he told me one of his favorite clues of all time was...

[Mental block?]

The answer is...

See how the clue calls for more than just a literal definition?

One thing to look out for before you start hunting down question marked clues, though. A question mark in a clue does not always signal wordplay. Consider the clue...

["Who has an answer?"]

In this case, the question mark occurs inside quotation marks, which means that the answer is an utterance that just happens to be a question.

The answer to this clue is...


To see why this is a perfectly reasonable answer, just imagine a teacher asking a question to a class and then looking for volunteers with "Anybody?".

P.S. In the world of British style (Cryptic) crosswords, an exclamation mark (!) at the end of a clue is used for a similar purpose.

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