I've just come out from under several painful deadlines and am ready to do some blogging. And the note that I've written to myself is: crosswords. This is why the other deadlines were painful. I could have been writing about crossword puzzles, but I had other stuff to do. Oh, the misery. I had written this note on 11 January, the day that one of the most famous British crossword compilers announced, via his puzzle, that he had terminal cancer.

But more to the point: crossword (puzzle). This word/expression can refer to the same thing in BrE and AmE, but it usually doesn't.

In the UK, the bare term crossword most usually refers to cryptic crossword puzzles. These exist in the US, but not as much as in the UK, where each of the (mainly BrE) broadsheet newspapers has a daily cryptic crossword. Now, these were not the original type of crossword puzzles, and everyone here knows they are cryptic crosswords, but if we look at the adjectives that come before crossword in the British National Corpus, cryptic crossword only occurs once in 100 million words. The most frequent adjective before crossword in the BNC is quick, which names the other kind of crossword that's found in the UK. The reason why quick crossword occurs more than cryptic crossword is not because people write about cryptic crosswords less. It's because when they do write about them, they tend to just say crossword.  (Take for example, the Guardian's Crossword Blog, cited again below, which pretty much only discusses the cryptic sort.)

In the US, the word crossword tends to refer to a different animal than is seen in the UK. If one were to talk about those ones in the UK, they'd have to be called American-style crosswords or something like that. If a puzzle is a cryptic one, Americans will call it a cryptic crossword or sometimes a British-style crossword puzzle. Among those in the know, though, British-style crossword refers to a grid style, as opposed to American-style grids. This picture comes from an eHow page on how to make crossword grids. The one on the left, with less white space is British-style. The one on the right is American-style.

Both cryptic crosswords and quick crosswords in the UK are in the British-style grid. (In the US, you might see British-style grids in school exercises, but not usually in newspapers.) The British-style grid means that you pretty much need to be able to determine the answer for every clue. If you don't know the answer for one of the across items in the leftmost puzzle above, knowing all the other answers will get you just a small proportion of the letters in the one you don't know. If all you've figured out is that they want a five-letter musical instrument whose second letter is I, you won't know until the answer is published whether it's a PIANO or a VIOLA (or some other instrument I haven't thought of).

In the American-style one, you can get the answer in a roundabout way. Since each of the letters of the five-letter musical instrument intersects with another word, you can build the word one letter at a time from other clues. But because of this, American clues are much more ambiguous than British ones. For instance, the clues in British crosswords of both types tell you how many letters are in the answer, and how the string breaks down into words. American ones don't give you that information, though the easiest ones might tell you that the answer has multiple words. American clues are sometimes jokey (more so than UK Quick ones) and the puzzle itself often has a running theme (so can the other types, but this is a [mostly AmE in this figurative sense] calling card of American puzzles). Because there are so many short words in an American-style puzzle (and they need to line up nicely), any American puzzle-solver has a good vocabulary of three-letter combinations that somehow mean something—including compass points and acronyms.

A quick tour of clues—which won't do any of the puzzles justice:

Cryptic (The Independent Cryptic Crossword 7768 by ANAX as discussed in the Guardian Crossword blog):
26ac What can you get for 20p? Oddly, silver key (4)
The answer is ISLE (as in the Florida Keys); the first bit of the wordplay is a plug for the Independent's sister paper i, which belatedly started including a cryptic crossword - one that's as good as any broadsheet's and which we'll look at here in more detail before long.
The Guardian blogger saw fit to explain the I, but have you got the SLE? Oddly is the clue to tell you to look for—the odd-numbered letters in the following word, silver.  (The key is there to make it rhyme. is the definition, of course—see Owen's comment correcting my original mistake! But it's still true that UK cryptics are more likely to allow extraneous words: See  Wikipedia tells me that this kind of thing is more allowable in British cryptic crosswords than in North American ones. Click on the link to see for more UK/North American differences.)  A guide to types of cryptic clues can be found here.)

UK Quick (from Guardian quick crossword 13353):
16 Be transferred by contact or association (3,3)  (RUB OFF)

American-style (New York Times, via Rex Parker's blog):
42D: What the Beatles never did  (REUNITE)
44A: 1970 hit by Sugarloaf (GREEN-EYED LADY)
The last of these was part of a theme (left for the solver to discover) of songs with eye colo(u)rs in their titles.

I love to do the New York Times crossword whenever I get the chance (which isn't much, because when I visit the US all the crossword puzzles in the newspaper are spoken for, and you do NOT do someone ELSE's crossword puzzle. Not if you know what's good for you).*

But I am a fan of the British cryptics—by which I mean that I admire them and like to read about them, but I don't do them myself. (Whenever I convince myself I've got the patience for the clues, I become undone by the inclusion of bits of British cultural knowledge that I don't have—such as anything to do with cricket.) I'm not sure if anyone else sees crossword puzzles as a spectator sport, but it's a good one. And so when Araucaria's cancer puzzle came to light, I was saddened and appreciative [that he wanted to communicate with his fans in this way] as a long-time spectator-fan. As far as I can tell (there's not a lot of data in the corpora), the term crossword compiler is used in both US and UK, but perhaps more in the US, since in the UK crossword setter seems more common. (Recall our discussion of exam-setting too.)

Finally if, like me, you're an crossword-spectating expatriate in the UK with South African connections, I recommend Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose [8], South-African-expat-in-UK Sandy Balfour's memoir of falling in love over puzzles.  You might even like it if you're just some of those things.

*Yes, yes, I could download an app or something. But have I mentioned that I have a job with DEADLINES?! In my life crossword puzzles are for (BrE) holidays/(AmE) vacations or hospital stays. And now that my holidays/vacations involve a child, they're not really for those either.

P.S. (the next day): @MagdalenB sent me this on Twitter. A British crossword setter explains the differences between British and American crosswords (after 2 long minutes of introduction, which can be skipped). I'm right about the cricket!!


  1. As you probably know but didn't get round to mentioning, there's also in the UK a further style of crossword puzzle called "barred". The only examples I know are the Beelzebub in the Independent and the Azed in the Observer. The grid for these has bars between some squares to separate words, but no squares are blanked out, so you typically get a higher proportion of letters for a word by dint of solving intersecting clues.

    Barred crosswords compensate for this by using many words that are very rare (to the extent that they are not in my vocabulary), so they require a dictionary to hand. As a result, Azed is probably the hardest UK crossword.

  2. In the 'What can you get for 20p' clue the 'key' isn't just the rhyme, but the definition of the clue - Key = Isle. Most cryptic clues include a straight definition of the answer, although it does depend on the type of clue!

    Cryptic crosswords take practice - no longer getting a print paper, I now only tend to do them when I'm visiting my parents (for whom crosswords are a team sport :) - and so find them much harder than I used to.

    The thing I find interesting about cryptic crosswords is how the style of the setter is so personal. Some I find easy, some I find hard - but often instantly recognisable.

  3. Barred crosswords appear in the US as variety cryptics, where some of the solutions (or clues) have to be changed before entering them into the puzzle.

    I prefer regular cryptics to the variety; has a weekly online cryptic (mostly) that tends to violate some Amercian cryptic conventions.

    (Despite the spelling of my name, I am American)

  4. In case anyone's still confused about the clue discussed above, you need to split it up as follows:

    1. "What can you get for 20p" = I (this is an in-joke for the newspaper)

    2. "Oddly, silver" = SLE (odd-numbered letters of "silver")

    3. "key" = ISLE (as in Florida).

    I + SLE = ISLE

    Cryptic crosswords are one thing I definitely miss from the UK. I used to do they with my mother when I was a kid. Harper's Magazine probably has the best example from the US.

  5. I suspect most people in Britain encounter crosswords in the mass market tabloid papers rather than the broadsheets and therefore equate them with the quick rather than cryptic variety.

  6. That's why I never try to solve an English or American crossword. It's almost an impossible challenge if you aren't native!
    Learn some Italian and give a go to our crosswords, they're way easier ;)

  7. @Alice: You are right. I (American) have tried British cryptics and failed miserably because of the culture gap. Even a time lapse causes a problem. Last year a collection of Stephen Sondheim's variety-cryptic puzzles from the 60's and 70's appeared online, and I find them hard to do (I have completed several and given up on several) because they refer to long-ago people and events, even though I have an advantage being 75 years old.

  8. There are some fairly well-known crossword setters with unique styles in the U.S. as well; Henry Hook and the team of Cox and Rathvon, who alternate setting the Boston Globe Magazine crossword, have fairly distinctive styles, and both also do puzzles for other publications; Cox and Rathvon long did puzzles for The Atlantic before it became primarily a public-affairs magazine. (I find Hook's harder to do.) Often the title of the puzzle gives essential information for solving some of the clues. Sunday puzzles often have a series of clues in all-caps with answers that run the entire width of the puzzle; often the clues will be something like "FUBAR" or "Part 4 of quip", such that solving most of the rest of the puzzle is required just to identify what the theme is. US puzzles often presume some knowledge of French, Spanish, Latin, or German (depending on the predilections of the setter, I think) although this is mostly restricted to common phrase-book level.

  9. The grid at the left of your picture is not typical of British cryptic crossword grids. Here is a typical one:
    Note that alternate rows and alternate columns are almost entirely white (and occasionally entirely white for a 15-letter answer).
    Thus typically a slot for an answer has either as many checked as unchecked squares, or one more checked. Less commonly the grid is in the opposite phase, like this:
    which produces 5-letter slots with only 2 checked letters. This is as bad as it gets with British-style crossword grids.

  10. When I was working at a restaurant during grad school (in the States), we'd copy the local crossword and work them in the back. On really quiet Sundays, we'd do the tougher Washington Post weekend puzzles with favourite regulars at the bar. Became a bit of a team sport. As for the joy of watching someone else find the answers, 'Wordplay' is a great documentary:

    I love American-style crosswords, and haven't assimilated yet to the British quick *or* cryptic puzzles. No one at school does them, so I can't even live vicariously through my native friends - one of whom asked me to bring back a NYT book of puzzles on a recent trip home.

  11. I recommend the Guardian crossword site with online versions of the there types printed in the Guardian and the Observer: quick, cryptic and barred. Some are available only to subscribers, but there must be enough free-access material to illustrate all that people have said here.

    If you're interested, you can learn quite a lot about the clues by using the cheat button and/or by reading the comments.

    Best of all, theres a new type of crossword, which they call Quiptic. These are cryptic crosswords for people like me who like cryptic crosswords but are much good at them. They're supposed to train you up to cryptic level. Even if they're not going to train me quite like doing them occasionally.

    The reputation of the famous compiler Lynne referred to, Araucaria, is such that you'd expect his puzzles to fiendish. Strangely, I find them easier than other cryptic puzzles. There's no objective measure of difficulty; it depends on how soon (if ever) you get onto the compiler's wavelength.


    for people like me who like cryptic crosswords but are much good at them

    I mean, of course,

    for people like me who like cryptic crosswords but are not much good at them

  13. I agree with R. Sabey; the supposedly British crossword in the picture is the kind of thing thrown together by a complete amateur for a children's page in the parish newsletter's Christmas special. It has far too many black squares, and newspaper crosswords have a 180-degree rotational symmetry.

  14. Hello there - I'm the author of that Guardian blog and you're quite right; in that context, "crossword" means "cryptic crossword" 99.999% of the time. In spoken English, I suspect the proportion would be a lot less - workmates talking about doing "the crossword" in a lunchbreak could be talking about the quick or the cryptic. One little thought: cryptic setters do try to avoid extraneous words in their clues, leaving only a "for" or something similarly innocuous between the wordplay and the definition.

  15. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Alan!

    (And the rest of you. But I'm more used to the rest of you. :) )

  16. I grew up doing the Telegraph crossword - my father, almost 90, still does it and other word puzzles (and Sudoku) obsessively to avoid senility (it seems to be working). He and my mother always do the main crossword (the cryptic one) together, but very often Daddy will do the quick crossword in his head and let Mummy do the writing-in. The first two clues across in the quick crossword always make some kind of phrase or word, like Gold and Finger - in our family these are known as "Marigolds" after my mother kindly pointed this out to a friend who had never noticed....

  17. I too used to do the Telegraph crosswords (quick and cryptic) with my parents. After my father died, Mum just took the paper on Saturdays, and I used to help her with the big general knowledge crossword which was in that day's issue.
    Kate (Derby, UK)

  18. Nice post, I'm a big fan of (American) crossword puzzles, and I enjoy the occasional "cryptic" but they are much harder to finish.

    Regarding the video, I think it's worth noting that the guy doing the "long 2 minute" introduction is Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. There is a movie called "Wordplay" that focuses on Mr. Shortz and the NYT crossword, which may be of interest to American crossword fans. This explains Mr. Beresford's opening joke about British crossword editors "toiling in complete obscurity", with no movies being made about them.

  19. Great book on American crosswords by Marc Romano, Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession. You're right about cultural references. My friend's mom has lived in the US (from China) since the 1960s and is a librarian and still has trouble with US crosswords.

  20. I do the Times 2 (quick) crossword every day and the jumbo version at the weekend. While these depend upon general knowledge to solve the clues - and hence can be restricted in time and geographically - recently I find that several clues are 'American', presumably because many overseas readers do the crossword online. For example, last week we had cowcatcher (rack on front of train) and hooch (illegal spirits), which are not common UK vocabulary; US spellings such as anesthetist are usually signalled in the clue. Quite often the weekday puzzles have answers with quirks such as all containing double letters, all beginning with the same letter, and so on. This is sometimes helpful for solvers!

    My mother solves the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword very quickly every day - she is rather snooty about the Times cryptic, saying that their clues demand some knowledge (of the Bible, Shakespeare and cricket for example) whereas the Telegraph clues depend more strictly on wordplay.

    The ultra-cryptic puzzles that were published in the now-defunct Listener magazine are now found in the Sunday Times - golly, they look really difficult. I wonder how many people even attempt them.

  21. Very sad to hear about Araucaria. His crosswords are fiendishly difficult, and he takes the conventions to their limits. But what I especially liked about them is that there are never any extraneous words in his clues; every word is there for a purpose, and the grammatical logic is strictly followed, especially as regards tenses.

  22. I recommend GAMES magazine (a US-based puzzle magazine not limited to crosswords). It has a number of quick crosswords, but always two cryptics, which I have only recently started trying. I get excited when I get even two of the answers.

  23. A number of inaccuracies.

    In the picture, the puzzle on the left is not a British cryptic grid. It is what is commonly called a "vocabulary puzzle" or a "vocabulary crossword". The grid style, frequently used for puzzles accompanying grade school vocabulary lessons, is intended to make sure you know the actual words, that you're not just guessing. In the example you give, PIANO or VIOLA would have been in the vocabulary list. In a vocabulary puzzle, every word is part of the vocabulary set -- there are no extra words.

    If you watch the linked video, the presenter shows a true British grid at about 0:35.

    In the UK, if someone says "crossword", they usually mean what Americans call a cryptic, not a quick crossword, which is more like an American-style crossword. If they mean a quick crossword, they'll usually use that term, just like an American would not say "crossword" to mean either an American-style puzzle or a cryptic.

    In the US, I think the phrase "British-style crossword puzzle" is incredibly uncommon and it is even more rare to see an American puzzle with a British-style grid and American-style clues. I honestly can't recall ever seeing one. I hear the phrases "crossword" (American-style puzzle), "cryptic crossword" (just that), "British cryptic" or "British cryptic crossword" (a cryptic in the British style, where the cryptic rules are a bit different).

    In the US, people who make crosswords are called constructors (and, rarely, authors), not compilers. There is a program called Crossword Compiler, though.

    Barred puzzles exist in the US as well, and are the most common format for variety cryptics, in which there is a trick of some sort. The greater interlock allows for more flexibility in the trick. But, not all barred puzzles are variety cryptics, and not all variety cryptics are barred. My company (Puzzazz) publishes some barred riddle crosswords with American-style clues.

    On extraneous words, all constructors/setters try to avoid them. A "for" or "is" between halves is not an extraneous word -- it is a connector.

    I highly recommend Puzzazz's guide to solving cryptic crosswords.

  24. Andrea Carla Michaels15 April, 2013 06:26

    Really interesting article!
    In the US we call "setters" "constructors" not "compilers".
    Crossword Compiler is the name of crossword software, but no onewould call one who makes them a compiler...
    There are about 100 different contructors for the NY Times every year, but many regulars...
    Very few women proportionally (at least 10:1) but some of the top ones are women, eg Elizabeth Gorski.
    A topic for another time, but is that true in England too?

    And definitely rent "Wordplay" it will change your life!


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)