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Some of the crosswords I have been sent are let down by one thing only – poor indications for single letters when they are the first or last letters of a word in the clue. The article below examines the various techniques for indicating initial and final letters and looks at the relative merits of each.

The technique of using beginnings and endings of words to indicate individual letters in clues has become more and more common over recent years. It is certainly a useful device when the usual single-letter abbreviations won’t fit into the clue to give any sensible surface meaning, or you’ve already used the obvious possibilities in other clues. All you have to do is choose any word that begins (or ends) with the desired letter and make an indication that an initial (or final) letter is needed, and there are many ways of doing the latter. This allows the setter freedom to choose a word that enhances the surface reading of the clue, while at the same time accounting for the single letter in the wordplay.

For example, you need to clue the word DRINK. An obvious way to split this up is into D + RINK. Now, a rink is made of ice, and drinks often have ice in them. So an obvious starting point is to have a definition of the verb “to drink” or an example of a drink – whisky, cola, lemonade, and try to connect it with “ice” to form a sentence or phrase that reads well in the literal sense. Let’s try it for both the verb and the noun.

We start with

Sip/sup/quaff/swallow/neck etc. = D + ICE.

Then we can say that drinks are served “with ice” and “with” is a perfectly valid word to substitute the plus sign to link parts of a word. Now, let’s look at the possible abbreviations for the letter D and try to make a clue.

Sip daughter with ice (5)
Quaff Germany with ice (5)
Sup degree with ice (5)
Swallow died with ice (5)
Neck Democrat with ice (5)

None of these makes any sense – the clues read as nonsense. So how about we think of a drink that begins with D.

Sip Drambuie with ice (5)

Not bad, but we need to indicate that the first letter only of Drambuie is needed. Let’s make the word plural and use a common first letter indicator, “first of”.

Sip first of Drambuies with ice (5)

Bingo! We have a clue that works cryptically and a sentence that reads well as English, evoking the image of the start of a drinking session on a hot day perhaps.

How about drink as a noun?

Let’s start by choosing our drink. In this case I'll go for whisky. So the clue would be of the form:

Whisky is D with ice (5)

The same problem with common abbreviations applies as before – it is hard to use daughter, died, director etc and come up with anything meaningful. How about using a last letter this time – and a nice way to do this is

Whisky is served at last with ice (5)

“At last” is a valid last letter indicator, so we have accounted fairly and clearly for the letter D. As a final polish to the clue, we need to remember that whisky does not define drink but is an example of one, so the final clue could be

Perhaps whisky is served at last with ice (5)

The necessary addition of words like "perhaps" and "maybe" to indicate definition by example can sometimes make the surface reading a little awkward, but not in this case; the surface suggests that the barman may finally have got your drink order right but it's still uncertain.

The sheer usefulness of this device has a downside. It is terribly overused by some setters, where really it should be a last resort when all else fails. Worse still, some setters, both amateur and professional, often tend to be sloppy or unfair when indicating initial or final letters even if they are scrupulously fair with other clues. What follows is what I see as acceptable ways of clueing initial and final letters and what I regard as unfair. I differ from the hard-and-fast rules applied by some Ximenean setters on occasions and will indicate where this is the case.

Common first and last letter indicators use adverbs like “initially”, “primarily”, “chiefly”, “finally” or “ultimately”. These are words that can fit neatly into most clues and make good surface sense. What’s more they can go before or after the word whose first or last letter is needed, e.g. “Thomas initially” and “Initially Thomas” both fairly and clearly indicate the letter T, although I think that the former is neater. Somehow, having this sort of indicator after the word it refers to seems more right, although this is a gut instinct and I can’t really explain why. The one caveat is that these indicators are used so often that they can be rather a giveaway for the solver.

Another common trick is to use nouns like “head”, “chief”, “leader”, “end”, “tail” and many more. For example, “head of department” or “department’s head” for the letter D are accepted among all setters without question.  By indicating the possessive with “of” or “apostrophe S” there is no doubt as to what the solver is required to do. Any crossword editor should accept this type of indication and if they don’t, they don’t know what they are talking about!

If you are using words like “beginning” or “start” you can use another variant e.g. “beginning to rain” or “start to run” are quite acceptable to as in this case “to” indicates the possessive. “Start” is a useful word as it can be pluralised so as to indicate multiple first letters, e.g.

Starts to take heed as new king speaks

gives THANKS. Another advantage here that “starts” on the surface reads as a verb whereas it is a noun in the cryptic sense – perfectly fair and a good way to make the solver think a bit harder.

Now we move to more controversial practices. What about "Socialist leader" for the letter S? Or “German leader” to indicate G? You see this in respected puzzles like the Times yet some compilers, especially those in the Ximenes camp, get rather antsy about this. My view is that since implicitly “socialist leader” means “leader of socialists” and “German leader” means leader of Germany this is perfectly acceptable. Most pairings of words that contain “leader” and make sense are likely to work along the same lines. However, what about something like “Race start” to indicate the letter R? This is perhaps more dubious and you certainly won’t get very far if you use it in the Ximenean-only Azed competition.

I don’t much like “Race start” or “East End” or “January first” to indicate the letters R, T or J. Grammatically all of them are weak. I think a justification can be found however in that we talk about the “Jones house” to mean the house of the Joneses or the “Federer serve” to mean Federer’s serve, so even without the apostrophe S there is, by analogy, a justification for this type of thing. In the case of “January first”, this is how Americans often express dates so there is a clear parallel with “the First of January”. I regard words like “start”, “first”, “end” etc placed after words without the apostrophe S to be weak indicators – I grudgingly accept them from those who contribute to this site and will, if all else fails, do it myself, but if this can be avoided I vastly prefer it.

A variant of this is to reverse the word order. I have seen cases where setters, both amateur and professional, might indicate the letter P by “First person”. This one, and anything like it, is for me a no-no – I can see no way at all that “first person” = P. It is, as far as I’m concerned, sloppy compiling – find a word beginning with the right letter and stick a word in that vaguely hints at an initial without giving any thought to whether the device works grammatically. This is just as bad as “leading politician” which can not, in any way I can see, indicate the letter P. “What is leading” or “that which is leading”, while cumbersome, work acceptably but “leading” on its own is one of my bugbears. Fortunately one rarely sees it in mainstream puzzles these days and if I receive a puzzle for this site that has “leading” as a first letter indicator it automatically moves closer to the rejection tray.

I have also seen verbs misused as initial or final letter indicators. Some examples would be “begin typing” or “finish diet” as indicators for the letter T. If a verb has to be used it surely needs to be the passive participle, e.g. “Typing begun” or “diet finished” – this has some grammatical justification (although I still think it is weak) in that a word begun or finished is its first or last letter respectively. However “Begun typing” or “finished diet” is rather more dubious and I would not be happy to see it in a crossword I wrote, edited or solved.

One other device, which I have discussed elsewhere on this site, is the use of things like “masthead”, “redhead” or “Gateshead” for the letters M, R and G. Those who stick firmly to Ximenes have long ago ruled these out – not only is there no apostrophe S but the two words in each case have been run together, thus it is an abuse of spacing. A masthead is quite clearly the top of a mast, so this one is surely justified; we are on less sure ground with something like “redhead” since there is no such thing as the head of (a) red. Yet this is one of the areas where I’m not entirely in agreement with the Ximeneans. I don’t use this trick nowadays, but I don’t complain when other setters do; I think it is pretty obvious that “redhead” is meant to indicate the letter R, even if it is suspect grammatically.

One indicator which crops up, usually in advanced puzzles, is “a bit of” along with variants such as “a drop of” and “a dash of” etc. This is a rare case of something that is approved by Ximenean purists and not by me (and some other setters). “A bit of cake” no doubt makes for great surface reading in many contexts but why should this indicate C rather than A, K, E or even CA, AK etc? I believe that those who support it do so on the grounds that Azed uses it regularly and it’s become conventional to assume that “a bit of” refers to the first letter of a word. I would say that if the approval of a great setter (as Azed undoubtedly is) and convention can be used to justify something that’s a bit iffy, by the same token Araucaria’s use of “egghead” and the like is equally justified. Perhaps this goes to show that we can’t have our bit of cake and eat it!

Take a look at this clue:

Gamblers finally accept bet (5)

The answer is STAKE: S + take. This clue uses a last letter indicator that is acceptable to all, but the clue is very weak, I think. Why? Because what I have done here is to stick an S on the end of a word and then ignored the word itself! There is nothing technically wrong with this, but I hope you would agree that pluralising a word, or making it third person singular, just to use the final S is a bit of a cop-out.

Another example:

Leaders of parliament lacking a new idea (4)

To arrive at the answer PLAN we need the first letters of “parliament lacking a new”. What about the “a” here? There is room for debate: can A be the first letter of “a” when it is the only letter and thus technically the last too? I have seen clues criticised for this type of thing and can sympathise with those criticisms, yet on the other hand this is very much a point of pedantry and I don’t think it matters too much. Personally I would replace the “a” with “any” to avoid the problem.

Another bone of contention is the use of the word “top” or “bottom” as first or last letter indicators. Clearly they work for down clues but what about across clues? On this one I would side with the Ximeneans and say not, preferring “front” or “back”.

To finish, I would like to mention a related device – the use of single middle letters from words. This device is less common but the same principles apply – thus “centre of attention”, “Janet’s heart”, or possibly “fitness centre” are all options for the letter N. The common mistake new setters make is to have something like “training centre” for N – the problem here is that N is not the centre of the word “training”. This is not mere pedantry but a matter of simple accuracy, and it should be clear that only words with an odd number of letters work.

“Midnight” for the letter G is another one that gives the true purists a headache but it appears in the Times crossword among others, and I have no problem with this one as one of the definitions of “midnight” is “middle of the night”.

In summary, first and last letters are an excellent way of accounting for left over letters in the wordplay of a clue. Beware their overuse – many solvers resent the clues to a puzzle being peppered with initial and final letters even if the resulting surface reading is good, and the best setters usually use this device as a last resort. It is important to be fair in indicating single letters in this way, and I hope the above gives a reasonable indication of what is fair and what is not. Remember that if you are writing clues for barred thematic puzzles such as the Listener or entering the Azed competition, the editors are far more fussy about what is acceptable and what is not; for other puzzles there is more room for manoeuvre. As will all types of clue you will need to observe the editor’s rules but what counts in the end is the solver. If you have given the solver a fair indication that an initial or final letter is required, you have fulfilled your duty as a compiler.