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Homophone Clues In Cryptic Crosswords

Cryptic crossword clues, as you'll have seen through this series of blog posts, come in various distinct types, and the list we've covered is not even exhaustive!

One of the clue types that people often struggle with is the homophone clue, or soundalike clue.

These are words or phrases that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. With homophone clues in cryptics, the words are always spelt differently. As an example, MINED and MIND clearly mean very different things, but they have the same pronunciation.

The homophone clue exploits this and so you will need to say the word in your head and think of other words that sound the same to help you reach the answer. Some people find this harder than other, and indeed some clues are more obscure than others, particularly if they expect you to use some fairly strange dialectical way of pronouncing a word that may be alien to you.

Homophone clues include an indication to the fact that you should use your ear, such as 'we hear' or 'on the radio' or 'by the sound of it', so in that sense they are quite easy to identify, compared to most other clue types that don't announce themselves quite as readily. Whilst these clues are often telegraphed, they are nevertheless often very hard to solve, as they can require quite a bit of lateral thinking to take you to the answer.

Let's look at an example clue:

Taxi cost heard to be reasonable (4)

Here taxi cost is FARE and reasonable is FAIR.

One of the complaints people have with homophone clues is that it is not always clear which word the setter wants for the answer, and on occasion this can lead to apparent multiple answers.

For instance if the meanings are 'fair' and 'fare' as above, then which one does the setter want you to use for the answer? In the example above should we read the clue as 'taxi cost, heard to be reasonable' or as 'taxi cost heard, to be reasonable': note that the position of the comma changes what the answer word is, or essentially, are we supposed to 'hear' the word FARE to get FAIR or hear the word FAIR to get FARE as the answer?

Usually the letters in the grid whittle it down to one option, but not always, so the setter using the homophone clue should either indicate the answer word clearly, or check that only one of the options fits the letters available. As a setter, if the answers are of the same length, then the homophone indicator should come at the start of the clue to remove this ambiguity: eg "We hear taxi cost to be reasonable" which clearly leads to the answer being FAIR, not FARE.
Date written: 13 Apr 2015

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