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Let’s consider these two clues for SLEIGHT.

(1) Hits leg breaks, showing dexterity (7)

(2) Leg this meanders, showing dexterity (7)

Both clues are technically sound anagram clues; there are no superfluous words, all the parts of speech are correct, both use acceptable anagram indicators and the definition is accurate. But let’s forget about the cryptic element and just read the two clues as English sentences. Clue (1) instantly evokes an image of a batsman making short work of a spin bowler’s efforts. What about clue (2) though? What image does this suggest? The answer of course is none at all; there is no conceivable context in which this gibberish could possibly mean anything.

What we are looking at here is the surface reading, or literal meaning, of a cryptic crossword clue. A competent setter tries to ensure that his or her clues will evoke some picture in the solver’s mind, and clues which fail to do this are usually considered unsatisfactory even if the cryptic grammar is perfectly correct.

It’s quite reasonable to ask why surface reading is important. One the first things you’re told as a rookie solver is that you have to ignore the surface reading of a clue and look for the cryptic elements underneath. Experienced solvers won’t be misled into thinking that clue (1) is about cricket, despite the rather neat combination of “leg breaks” – they’ll barely register the surface meaning as they dissect the clue into its cryptic elements. So why do setters bother about surface reading at all? And why do solvers care about surface if they’re going to ignore it?

It’s partly a matter of aesthetics. A series of clues, each of which tells a mini-story, is far more pleasing than incoherent strings of words. Look at this way – when you dish up the Sunday roast, you try to put the meat, vegetables and any trimmings neatly on the plate, rather than slopping it all on in one heap. It’ll taste the same either way, but somehow it’s more enjoyable if the food’s presented tidily. Likewise, clues are more appealing when they have a sense of order about them than when they’re just a mish-mash of words.

Related to this is the idea that if clues were all of the clue (2) variety, how much point would there be in solving them? There are plenty of people who think that cryptic crosswords are a pointless exercise anyway, and not all of them are the sort that consider gossip about the Kardashians to be important news. I know plenty of intelligent people who feel that their time could be better spent on things other than crosswords (if I’ve just spent four hours struggling to finish a fiendish Listener puzzle, I tend to agree with them!) yet are fascinated by the idea that an ordinary phrase or sentence can be interpreted as a set of instructions to find a word. I somehow doubt that anyone but the most addicted crossword fiend would see any point, or pleasure for that matter, in learning that

Leg this meanders, showing dexterity (7)

can be interpreted to reveal the word SLEIGHT.

In fairness, I’ve never seen anything quite as bad as this example (which I made up), but you do see, especially at amateur level, clues which make some rational sense but still mean nothing in any possible context. An example would be

Doctor and the Queen hold four for motorist! (6)

as a rather dubious clue for DRIVER. This is the epitome of a “crosswordy” clue – a combination of words that isn’t total nonsense but would never appear in any context outside a cryptic crossword puzzle. This is a poor clue because despite it making some literal sense, it conjures up no picture of an imaginable situation in the solver’s mind. A tip here – sticking an exclamation mark on the end of a nonsensical clue to make out that you’re being wacky and surreal doesn’t cut it. Wacky and surreal is best left to the drug-fuelled lyrics of certain pop songs from the 60s.

There’s more to surface reading than aesthetics, though. The stronger the mental image evoked by the clue, the harder it is to break the clue down into its constituent parts. Take this example:

Saw dog wearing lead (7)

This clue may have a chestnut flavour these days, but how many solvers encountering it for the first time will spot straight away that “lead” indicates the metal, symbol Pb, and that “saw” is another word for a PROVERB? Very few, I would suggest. The image congured up by this simple but elegant clue is so strong that it's hard to get past the notion of a four-legged friend being taken for walkies.

There are some dissenters (aren’t there always?) about the importance of surface reading. An obnoxious poster on one of the blogs used to complain constantly that the crosswords by at least one Guardian setter were too easy. When someone responded and said that a set of clues he’d dismissed as being no challenge to his towering intellect read beautifully on the surface, his comment was something like “I don’t want smooth surfaces! I want a puzzle!” Well, as far as the aesthetic appeal of good surfaces goes, he’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s plain wrong if he thinks that smooth surfaces play no part in making clues more challenging.

Surface grammar vs cryptic grammar

It’s desirable that in addition to creating some sort of imagery, the surface reading of a clue should contain reasonable English syntax and grammar. It’s best to avoid Yoda-speak and obviously the more fluently your clue reads, the better. It is vital to remember however that the grammar of the cryptic element must always take precedence over the grammar of the surface reading. In practice this means that when read literally, your clues may often have to be fragments of sentences rather than complete, self-contained constructions containing a subject, object and verb. For example, my cricket clue

Hits leg breaks, showing dexterity (7)

needs a noun or pronoun as the subject to be a complete sentence, but as a clue it works perfectly well because (a) it puts a clear image in the solver’s mind and (b) it is quite acceptable grammatically as a sentence fragment. A common mistake among new setters is to insert redundant words as padding – in this case perhaps by putting “He” at the start of the clue – in an attempt to tidy it up.

It’s not good practice to use faulty or inaccurate cryptic grammar in order to improve the surface. For example

Criminal pockets one’s money (4)

for COIN. This reads beautifully, is impressively concise and, of course, suggests an image of some poor sap having his money nicked. But when you look at the cryptic reading, things aren’t so rosy. If you expand the “apostrophe S” the clue reads as

Criminal pockets one is money (4)

which doesn’t work. Some “libertarians” (see note) may argue that the clue reads so neatly that the clash of verbs is justified. I have to part company with them. In any case, the clue is easily rescued (as is often the case with verb clashes) by substituting a present participle:

Criminal pocketing one’s money (4)

You may say that this revision reads slightly less well than the original, and you’ll get no argument from me about that. It still reads well enough, however, and by making this small change we’ve now got a clue with perfect cryptic grammar, and that’s the most important thing.

Where possible, it is best to avoid the kind of clue which is often described as “clunky”, but if the surface reading has to take a small hit to protect the cryptic grammar, it doesn’t matter. You’re not setting out to write a piece of immortal literature after all, and on occasions you have to make certain stylistic concessions. You may not like splitting infinitives, but sometimes you have to grit your teeth and do just that to make a clue work. You may even need to use the passive voice, which good writers do their best to avoid (e.g. “she is loved by him” rather than the active form “he loves her”).

To summarise so far: the cryptic grammar of a clue should always come first, but it is also important that the surface reading of a clue suggests some sort of image and reads as smoothly as possible as English. The ability to consistently write fair clues which also read well on the surface is perhaps the major factor which distinguishes a good setter from an average one.

Perhaps the biggest test of a setter’s ability to provide good surface readings is when there are other constraints on the clues, and the most notable of these is when some or all of the clues have to conform to a theme. When writing a normal clue, there are all sorts of different surface readings that the setter can use, but that range becomes seriously limited when all the clues have to have surfaces relating to Shakespeare or Hitchcock or whatever theme you’ve chosen. It doesn’t help that forcing the names of plays or films into the wordplay for ordinary words usually involves using theme words with bits chopped off or just their first/last letters, and without due care the result can be some very clunky and unwieldy clues indeed.

From the setter’s point of view, the easy way to write a themed crossword is to fit as many theme words – e.g. books by Dickens – into the grid and fill the remaining blanks with normal words. Nowadays we have software so it’s possible to do this without too much effort. Then you either clue the theme words without definition (mentioning this in a preamble) or have all the theme answers refer to a key clue. In this example, 1 across could be DICKENS and all the clues for the books would be defined as “by 1 across”. This can make for a fun solve, but some object that if you know the theme it’s too easy and if you don’t it becomes an exercise in searching for information. My own view is that if the theme is one I care about – e.g. opera – I’m happy even if some of the answers are a write-in. I'm always glad to see my interests shared by others, and I never complain when a puzzle’s easy. On the other hand, I’m rather less chuffed if I have to go online to look up the names of footballers or pop songs. Some setters avoid this problem by presenting the theme mostly in the surface readings of the clues, rather than in the answers, so that no more than a passing knowledge of the theme is needed to solve the puzzle. I can tell you from experience that this is quite a task.

I’ve done a few puzzles like that for this site, but the only one I’ve published in a paper is the Wagner bicentenary puzzle I wrote for the Independent. Going for themed surface readings rather than themed answers was a no-brainer. The titles of Wagner works are long – like the operas themselves – so it wouldn’t have been possible to fit many into a 15 x 15 grid. I’m also aware that quite a few otherwise intelligent people wear their ignorance of opera as a badge of honour, and I didn’t want the occasion to be spoiled by complaints.

I like to think that the results were quite good, and they must have been as the puzzle was selected to appear in Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual. I did manage to create surfaces which said something about the great man and his works, and also read tolerably well as English, but it was a huge undertaking and I’m not sure I would want to try doing anything like that again (unless I’m still around for Wagner’s tercentenary!). That’s why I have the highest admiration for setters who can provide this sort of themed puzzle on a regular basis and maintain consistently good surface readings. The best of these in my view is Tramp, who sets for the Guardian.

His first puzzle was themed around Fawlty Towers and he managed the seemingly impossible by getting the titles of all 12 episodes into the puzzle, many of them in the clues. Since then he’s gone on to do such diverse themes as Stephen King, Peanuts, Dire Straits, Wagner, Roald Dahl, Pink Floyd, The Simpsons and Morrissey. I’m probably biased because I like all the themes except the last two (I’ve never seen the appeal of The Simpsons and my views on Morrissey are unprintable), but nevertheless it is one thing to write a one-off puzzle based on a favourite subject, as I did, and quite another write a series of puzzles with a variety of themes without resorting to “bitty” clues and clumsy surface readings. It takes a considerable amount of talent to do this, and Tramp is one setter who definitely has that.

Happy surfaces!

It hardly needs saying that there are certain limits to what you can have as a surface reading in order to avoid offence, and I’m not going to patronise my readers by giving a lecture on taste and decency. I will point out though that sometimes a clue’s literal meaning may not be offensive as such, but still paint a rather unpleasant picture that goes against the spirit of fun that crosswords are supposed to engender. For example

Wife with AIDS produces offspring (6)

as a clue for WHELPS (W + HELPS) isn’t obscene and doesn’t show any -isms or -phobias (as far as I know – I struggle to keep up with all the latest ones), but does this sort of thing really come under the heading of entertainment? I don’t think so. You’re welcome to disagree, but if any editor actually passed this – and I think that’s unlikely – I predict that there would be quite a few complaints from solvers. It’s worth remembering that some solvers may be experiencing, or have recently experienced, unhappy circumstances and don’t want to be reminded of them. It’s for that reason I abandoned a clue (I forget what word it was for) after I’d come up with something like “daughter died swimming in channel”.

It’s a sad fact of modern life that however careful you are, there’ll still be a time when some sanctimonious bore takes, or more likely pretends to take, offence to show how right-on he or she is. It goes with the territory in an age when some people need a trigger warning before they can read Winnie the Pooh (wouldn’t a Tigger warning would be more suitable in this case anyway?). There’s nothing you can do about such people, but you can keep them at a distance by reading through your clues from a non-cryptic point of view and amending any that have unhappy surface references. If you really like producing depressing stuff it would probably be better to write for other sections of the newspaper!

To finish, I’ll admit that sometimes I try to convince myself that a clunky or nonsensical clue I’ve written is really pretty good after all if only you think about it the “right” way. What I do then is paste all or some of the clue, enclosed in quotes, into a search engine, and hope that I’ll get lots of hits showing the same phrase cropping up in respectable journals or works of literature. Usually the search returns no hits at all, so I realise I have to abandon it, but sometimes I do get a hit or two – where the clue appeared in someone else’s crossword! A case of great minds thinking alike, or fools seldom differing?

NOTE: I find the relatively new term “libertarian” for non-Ximeneans to be an interesting one. On the face of it, libertarians sound like the fun crowd; after all, libertarians in real life like to enjoy themselves without constantly being told what they can (or more often, can’t) do. By adopting the name, the anti-Ximenes faction has certainly scored a PR coup, giving the impression that we Ximeneans are stuffy old farts hidebound by an obsession with self-imposed rules, while the libertarians just get on with having a jolly good time. Who wouldn’t be a libertarian, given the choice? Well, me. I’m certainly a libertarian in most senses, in that I object strongly to inflexible smoking bans, for example. But in the cruciverbal sense I, like most Ximeneans, find that solving clues with incorrect cryptic grammar is anything but fun. The real enjoyment comes from pitting your wits against a setter you can trust, without having to second-guess the clues before solving them. So perhaps we Ximeneans are the true libertarians! Back