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Eight Crossword Solving Tips

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What's a fourteen-letter word for "someone who loves crossword puzzles?"

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Crosswords (flickr user: lovelihood)

To the uninitiated, these oh-so-addictive word puzzles can seem completely impenetrable, packed with obscure conventions, deliberately deceptive phrasing, and clues so bizarre they don't even make sense when you know the answer.

But there's no need to be having cross words with your crosswords. Follow these tips and you'll be a master cruciverbalist in no time.

Get the right puzzle...

There's a time and place for everything -- but the right time and place for your first cryptic crossword definitely isn't the Saturday New York Times.

The Times is the gold standard for U.S. crosswording, but you'll save much frustration if you try it earlier in the week. The paper runs its easiest crosswords on Monday, and they get progressively harder as the week goes on. The stiffest challenge generally falls on a Saturday; beginners should steer clear.

Some publishers helpfully mark their crosswords with their difficulty level, but with others, you're on your own. Don't be afraid to seek out something a little easier if you struggle.

...and start in the right place

To a novice, just starting a crossword is often daunting. All those white spaces, all those numbers, all those options...it's hard to know where to start chipping away at the clues.

So here's a good way to go about getting your foot in the door: start with any fill-in-the-blank questions. They're usually not too cryptic and have straightforward answers. Next, tackle the three-, four-, and five-letter words that connect to any clues you've solved already. Shorter words have fewer possibilities, especially if you already know a letter or two.

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Divide and conquer

Crossword puzzle clues generally come in at least two pieces: a straightforward definition, and one or two more cryptic hints at the same word.

Take the clue "To taunt the left is a plant." Here you have a definition ("A plant"), and a cryptic clue ("To taunt the left.") In this case, "to taunt" means "tease," and "the left" indicates the letter L, so the answer is "teasel," a spiky weed. So in this clue, the two parts are joined with a connective word -- "is" -- but don't rely on that always being the case. First order of business: identify where the split falls.

Arlo, Oona, Eno, and friends

Crossword makers love short, unusual words, especially ones with lots of vowels, and they're not averse to using ones you won't find in your dictionary, either. Celeb names, foreign words, and abbreviations are all common ploys, and you'll need to commit the repeat offenders to memory. So remember: Woody Guthrie's son is "Arlo," Charlie Chaplin's wife was "Oona," and ambient music composer Brian's last name is "Eno." You'll be needing those at some point.

Got XCIX problems, but a crossword ain't one

Numerous crossword conventions have been developed over the 90 or so years since the invention of the puzzle. Unhelpfully, puzzle-masters aren't often upfront about which they're using, and there are lots of them.

Most people have already figured out that words like "muddled," "around," or "untidy" indicate anagrams, but there are plenty more. Watch out for numbers; the word "nine" in a clue (or words that seem to refer to the quantity) could mean the letters "IX" -- nine in Roman numerals. Keep your eyes open for words ending in "-ER," too; another favorite ploy is to add them in unfamiliar ways, like "flower" (flow-er) to mean "river." If an answer seems to make no sense at all, chances are you've stumbled upon a convention you've never encountered before.

A question of questions

It's usually best to ignore most punctuation in crossword clues. Commas, hyphens, and quotation marks are all common ways for puzzle-masters to misdirect or obfuscate.

But a clue that ends in a question mark indicates you're going to need to make some lateral leaps to arrive at the answer, often involving wordplay, puns, or definitions that are stretched to (or beyond) their breaking point.

Je ne comprends pas

Although answers are usually English words, puzzle-masters don't necessarily confine themselves to their mother tongues. Fortunately, when they stray abroad, they'll leave you a hint.

Foreign words in a clue usually mean the answer is in the same language -- and place names or other nouns can be pointers, too. "Yves's assent (3)," for example, is "Oui," another of those handy, short, vowel-heavy words that crop up often.

The dictionary dilemma

Is pulling out the dictionary (or thesaurus, or dictionary of quotations, or any other reference work) cheating? Make up your own mind, but they sure can be useful.

We suggest keeping them as a backup plan for when you're well and truly stumped by a tricky clue -- there's certainly a case to be made that when you've simply never heard of a particular word, there's little to be gained by spending hours pondering over its clue. (But those web sites that give you lists of words that match a particular letter pattern or solve anagrams? Definitely cheating. No question.)

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