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Punctuation In Cryptic Crossword Clues

When you start solving cryptic crosswords, you will notice that some clues contain punctuation.

Whereas in English there are set rules as to where and how to use punctuation, and what the punctuation means, with cryptic crossword clues this is not the case. The punctuation is in fact often misleading, and there to make you parse a clue incorrectly.

Therefore the main piece of advice is very simple when it comes to crossword clues and punctuation - IGNORE IT! For most people this is actually surprisingly hard to do since we just parse clues as they read, complete with the punctuation. Therefore some solvers like to cross out the punctuation in a clue before reading it.

The punctuation, in summary, is often used just to make the clue read more nicely but has no other purpose, or the punctuation is actually there to actively mislead you. So again, ignore most punctuation.

Are there exceptions? Well yes, of course there are in the world of cryptic crosswords!

One example is the apostrophe. If an apostrophe is used to show that a letter is missing from the clue, then this usually is there to suggest the same is true of the answer. Sometimes with the apostrophe 's' combination, like cook's, you will need to turn this into 'cook is', perhaps for an anagram. So don't just dismiss all punctuation, but in almost all instances the comma, hyphen, brackets and full stop can be ignored.

Another piece of punctuation not to ignore is the question mark: this (and, less frequently, the exclamation mark) are used to suggest that there is something a little quirky going on with the clue: for instance that the clue is actually a cryptic definition if the question mark is at the end of the clue, or that some lateral thinking is required if the question mark appears elsewhere in the clue. Sometimes the question mark is just used to show you that the setter is really stretching the possible meanings of a word or being a bit cheeky in the usage.

The exclamation mark can tell you that this is an &Lit clue (see the blog post on those if you don't know what they are), or it could just mean the definition is novel but intuitive - not something you would come across in the dictionary, but (hopefully) fair enough in the sense that it will be immediately obvious once you have the answer, or the answer is presented to you.

Do you have any examples of misleading punctuation in clues, or otherwise, or any questions? Feel free to post in the comments section below.
Date written: 14 Apr 2015



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