Let us start with the cryptic clue most people understand.

Anagrams

This is when a clue hints at a rearrangement of letters to get to the answer. Have a look at this clue:

Served a diet now in fashion (6,2)

There are three elements to this clue: served — a diet now — in fashion 

The first element, served, is the bit of the clue that is the definition. In other words, this is the setter telling you what the answer is: a definition of, or means, served.

The second element, a diet now, forms the letters that need rearranging.

The third element, in fashion, is an anagram indicator — this is a word or phrase that tells you this clue is going to be an anagram. Why is in fashion an anagram indicator? Fashion, among other things, means to shape, form or mould. So, the setter is shaping or moulding part of this clue into another word, hence, an anagram. (By the way, there are many, many other such anagram indicators, it is a question of getting used to spotting them). 

So, when you fashion the phrase a diet now, you get something that means served. The answer? Waited on

Here is another clue:

Ankle was broken in ballet (4,4)

This also has three elements, though in a different order to the above clue. Ankle was — broken — in ballet 

This time, the rearranged words come first, then the anagram indicator and finally the definition.

The answer? Swan Lake

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The basic double definition

All cryptic clues can be expected to contain a definition of the answer, either at the start or end of the clue. This may be the easiest way into a difficult clue: imagine you are solving a synonym-only crossword with no cryptic content. This often works.

In many instances, a cryptic definition or double definition is all there is: A bouncer at the gym club (10) Answer — trampoline 

Alpine flower (7) Answer — glacier 

This answer reminds us that words do not always mean what they seem to at first. So, a flower can be a tulip or a river as well as a glacier. “High tars” may refer to sailors in crows nests, and “low tars” to submariners. An Oxford is as likely to be a shoe as a university.

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Container clues 

This is where the clue indicates one word contained in another.

So, Board assumes motive to be disloyal (10)

From board, we get the word “table”, which assumes, or takes on, a word that means motive (reason). And that gives us the definition of “to be disloyal” — t[reason]able.

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Homonyms

This is where words are spelt differently but sound the same.

Letters man read out (4)

“Read out” indicates this is a homonym clue — if you read out or spoke out loud a word for man, you get a word for letters. So “letters” gives us “mail” and “man” gives us “male”. But which one do you insert in the grid? The answer is mail. Because the setter is telling you to read out a word for man to get to a word that sounds like letters. Again, there are plenty of indicators for a homonym clue — sounds like, echoes, speaks to, voiced, reportedly, etc. There are many more.

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Hidden clues

This is where the answer is hidden in the clue, either forwards or backwards. Some distrust a militant’s language (5)

In a concise way, the setter is saying — in some part of the words distrust a militant’s, you will find a five-letter word for language.

Look closely at “distrust a militant’s” — you find distrust a militant’s. The answer is tamil.

Another example, the answer being capped up:

Hooter’s used in prisoN AS ALarm (5)

And here’s one that appears backwards:

Plan a cruise to include westbound waterway (5)

Waterway is the definition, westbound tells us the answer is moving east to west as you look at the words/letters, and plan a cruise contains the answer: canal.

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First, or initial, letter clues

In the following clue, the setter is indicating with the word leaders to have a look at a sequence of first letters.

Leaders of hostile armies invaded famous ancient city (5)

The definition comes at the end — city. So take the first letter of hostile armies invaded famous ancient and you get the answer — Haifa.

Something similar happens in this clue, except the indicator and the definition come at the end:

Key is sometimes stuck completely until rattling loose openings in lock (8)  

The indicator that this comes with the word openings, the definitions comes with lock.

Take the first letters of Key is sometimes stuck completely until rattling loose and you get the answer — kisscurl.

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Salami clues

Setters like to add or subtract single letters or divide clues into many different parts. Love a duck! Monsieur’s inside doing porridge (7)

The answer: oatmeal 

Porridge is the definition. And the cryptic elements are as follows: Love = o (the tennis term for zero)

A duck = a teal 

Monsieur = m (the French abbreviation), which goes inside Love a duck!

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Replacements

This is where letters or words are replaced by other letters or words. Have a look at this:

Bind border replacing one thread (5)

A synonym for bind is tie.

A synonym for border is hem.

A synonym for one is I. 

So if you replace the i in tie with hem, you get the answer theme.

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Alternating letters

This is where every other letter in a clue gives us the answer. The setter will hint at this device by using words like alternatively, occasionally, periodically, regularly.

Conger eels, periodically big monsters (5)

Look at the second, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth letters of conger eels You get cOnGeR eElS — and the answer that defines big monsters, OGRES.

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Removing letters 

This is a bit like replacements. The setter will signal that letters are to be removed:

Fall sick after swamp’s drained (6)

Drained indicates that the previous word, swamp, is to be emptied, or drained, of its central letters. So we get sp after draining swamp of its middle letters (wam). And with the word ill being a synonym for sick, you put sp together with ill, to make a synonym for fall — spill.

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Spoonerism

The Rev WA Spooner of New College, Oxford, was responsible for this clue, which transposes the initial sounds of words. To him is attributed the phrase “shoving leopard” when he meant to say “loving shepherd”. This sort of thing translates particularly well to crossword clues:

There’s a hole in the front door — Spooner wants improved security (6,3)

If you want improved security, you may be seeking better locks. But in Spooner’s world, this becomes letter box — a hole in the front of your door.

Similarly:

Boxer to endure destiny, says Spooner (13)

The setter is transposing weather fate, which could mean endure destiny, with featherweight, a boxer.

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The &lit clue

A winning entry in the Observer’s Azed competition was:

Item gran arranged family slides in (5,7)

This is what is known as an &lit clue (meaning “and literally”), where the whole clue provides both definition and cryptic indicators. The cryptic version is an anagram of item gran surrounding clan, a synonym for family. The whole clue is a definition of the answer — magic lantern. If there is a holy grail of crossword clue writing then it is the &lit clue.

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Tools of the trade

To help solve cryptic crosswords, it is worth having in mind that setters are forever searching for abbreviations to make their clues work.

The number of single, two and three letter abbreviations or indications is almost infinite. A sailor for example can be an AB, an OS, as well as a member of the RN (in addition to possibly being a salt or a jack). 

Soldiers may be RA, RE, REME, GI, OR, TA or CO. The letter B could refer to born, a bishop, a musical key, a blood group, a road, a bachelor, a pencil, an element, to list just a few. Though one might note that Al, apart from being aluminium, has a regrettable habit of always referring to “gangster”, as if no other Al than Capone is well known enough to appear in a crossword.

Foreign words, especially articles and personal pronouns crop up a lot: “the French” may be le, la, les, “the German” der, die, das, and so on. Sporting terms crop up occasionally, usually referring to cricket and especially using words that have other meanings: on, off, run, extra, slip, cover, test. However, in deference to the Financial Times’s large overseas readership, we discourage references to television and radio programmes, actors and “celebrities”. 

For a website that talks all the time about crosswords and how clues are created and solved, look at fifteensquared.net, where crosswords from the FT and other newspapers are reviewed and the clues annotated - it is a valuable source of guidance. Solvers can post their own comments. If you want to be critical of a compiler, or indeed of a crossword editor, this is a place to do so.

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