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Finding beauty in (and explaining) cryptic crossword clues
Part three of a nine-part series of blogs

Cryptic crossword clues can be ingenious and witty, as this blog tries to explain. The blog tries to convey this owl's passion for the genre, but also to give a mini-tutorial on how cryptic crosswords clues are constructed.

  1. Finding beauty in (and explaining) cryptic crossword clues
  2. Anagrams
  3. Construction clues (this blog)
  4. Cryptic definitions
  5. Double meaning clues
  6. Lit clues
  7. Hidden clues
  8. Soundalike clues
  9. The overall winner

Posted by Andy Brown on 26 May 2020

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Construction clues

These clues can take many forms, but the principle is always the same.  The definition of the word or phrase being clued comes at the start or end of the clue, and the rest of the clue gives what is called the wordplay.  The best way to understand this is with some examples!

The clues below are especially clever and tortuous, which is why I've given the answer in each case (and put the definition in blue).  Don't be put off by these if you're just starting to learn cryptic crosswords, as most construction clues are much more straightforward.


The wordplay for this clue is well-hidden:

Places to go and see? Not exactly (7)

OK, so LOOSELY obviously is defined by Not exactly - but how on earth does the rest of the clue construct this?  Well ...

  • Places to go is just a synonym for toilets (or loos as they're called in the UK sometimes); and
  • Ely is a cathedral city, and hence a see

Welcome to the devious mind of the cryptic crossword compiler!


The clue for this was:

Drove home, reduced speed in seaside resort (10)

A nice story about driving home, and making sure that you slow down by the sea?  Not exactly.  The word E-MPH-ASISED consists of:

  • A speed - miles per hour - reduced to its initials MPH; in
  • A re-sort of the word SEASIDE.

Notice again that the setter is intentionally misleading you into mispronouncing the word resort in your head.


The clue in this case is:

Bad idea not bringing in supervisors earlier (14)

I love the fact that someone spotted that the word AFOREMENTIONED contains the word FOREMEN.  So this is:

  • An anagram of IDEA NOT (the word bad signifying that the letters of these words don't come in the right order); brinigng inside
  • The word FOREMEN (that is, supervisors).


Clue setters often try to make their clues describe current events, but few succeed better than this:

Man responsible for distribution of toxin around centre of Salisbury (7)

Remember the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury?  Actually, this clue's got nothing to do with that.  Instead it involves putting POISON round the middle letter of SALISBURY to get Poisson, the inventor of the eponymous Poisson distribution (among many other things mathematical).


This is one fiendish clue:

Was transformed by make-up girl from East African state (9)

You could look at that for quite some time without realising how it gives Swaziland (now called the Kingdom of Eswatini).  The DNA of the clue is as follows:

  • Start with an anagram of WAS (ie transform it), to get the SWA;
  • Your make-up is your DNA, and a girl's name is LIZ;
  • Read DNALIZ from the East (ie from the right) to get ZILAND!


I like this clue for the definition (a stevedore is another word for a docker or warehouseman):

In shops, woman and daughter hold hands?(10)

The wordplay is fairly simple.  Daughter is often abbreviated to d (particularly in cryptic crosswords), and a woman's name is Eve.  So we get EVE-D in STORES.  Stevedores are hold hands because they're hired workers (hands) who put things into and get things out of ships' holds!

The word HOLD appears to be being used as a verb, but is actually a noun, while the word HANDS refers to a type of worker rather than something at the end of your arm. 

Paddington Bear

Another clue which is anything but transparent:

Bond hero putting on weight, heading for bar during conference? (10,4)

The surface hero tells of James Bond going to seed, drinking too much alcohol - a far cry from the hero of Michael Bond's stories, Paddington Bear. 

  • Putting on weight ==> adding ton
  • Heading for bar ==> the letter b, the word's heading

As to the conference, that could be a type of pear (hence the question-mark).  This gives us P-ADDING TON B -EAR!

The Winner: Right-on

The above clues illustrate two things about construction clues:

  1. They're common (that's why I've quoted so many here); and
  2. They can be the hardest clues to understand and decipher.

Given this second point, I'm pleased to award my Construction Clue award to a very simple one:

Woke in seaside resort, topless (5-2)

That's Woke as in politically correct, or right-on.  And the topless seaside resort?  (B)righton, of course!

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