Solving Tips

Here are some hints and tricks for figuring out the wordplay in New York Times crossword puzzles. Clues used in this post come from actual NYT puzzles or Merl Reagle crosswords.

_ If the clue contains an abbreviation, the answer will be abbreviated. “Govt.-issued ID,” for example, yields the answer SSN, the shorthand for “Social Security number.” The clue “E.M.T. training” yields CPR. (An exception might be when the abbreviation is part of a military or police title: “Det. Bonasera on ‘CSI: NY'” is the full word STELLA, even though her title of “Detective” is shortened.)

_ Watch for plurals in a clue. “Soup kitchen needs” are LADLES, because there’s more than one “need.” Sometimes knowing an entry will end in “S” allows you to fill in its last square, perhaps  sparking the answer to a crossing word. Be wary, of course, of sneaky Latin plurals (say, RADII for the plural of RADIUS).

_ The tense of an answer stays consistent with tense of the clue tense. “Border on” is ABUT, while “Borders on” would be ABUTS.

_ Watch for consistency on a first-name basis. “Dottie in ‘A League of Their Own'” is GEENA, the first name of the actress who played the character Dottie Hinson. If the clue had said “Hinson in ‘A League of their Own,'” the answer would be DAVIS, Geena’s last name.

_ If the clue has a foreign word in it, so will the answer. “Members of la familia” are TIOS, the Spanish word for “uncles.”

_ Question marks always indicate the clue is a pun or play on words.

_ Beware of proper nouns masquerading as regular nouns, especially in a sports context. “Warriors’ grp.” refers not to an association for soldiers but to the NBA, the “group” to which the Golden State Warriors belong. “Giant in the field” is usually OTT, for Mel Ott, who played baseball for the New York Giants (before they moved to San Francisco). “Budget alternative” nearly always refers to Budget car rental, not a generic spending plan.

_ Clues that use words like “for openers” or “finish” indicate the answer is a prefix or suffix. “Ten, for openers” is DECA, the prefix indicating 10. “Friendly introduction?” is USER, for “user-friendly.” And “Meteor’s tail?” is the suffix OLOGY, for “meteorology.”

_ Know your Roman numerals: I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500, M=1,000. Putting a smaller number in front of a larger number means you’re subtracting it. So “Super Bowl XLVII” translates to “Super Bowl 47.”

_ Beware of pronunciation and homonyms. “Tumbler” is a type of glass but also an acrobat. “Sewer” is an urban drainage system as well as someone who sews things.

_ When I have a few letters of a down answer but am still stumped, I will re-write them Hangman-style on a piece of scratch paper, i.e. _RO_SW_R_. Sometimes seeing the letters spelled out horizontally makes it easier to supply the missing letters: CROSSWORD.

_ When I’m stumped by a single missing letter, I will mentally go through every letter of the alphabet until I find the one that fits. Seriously.

What tips would you offer? Have questions or comments? Leave them here, visit my Facebook page or tweet me @crosswordkathy.

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8 thoughts on “Solving Tips”

  1. re your tip-

    The tense of an answer stays consistent with tense of the clue tense. “Border on” is ABUT, while “Borders on” would be ABUTS.

    I think this example in this tip has to do with number instead of tense.

    A more general tip is “clues and answers agree in gender, number, case, and tense”.

  2. If a certain word is the answer to a clue , that same word will not be used anywhere else in the puzzle. Example, if the answer to a clue is “flag”, the word “flag” won’t appear in the puzzle as part of another question.

  3. @Kathy – Good one! Thanks for adding. That feat is easily overlooked but requires a truly awesome vocabulary.

  4. Thanks 4 the hintz. I’m a slow-going puzzler (please consider my age), but I can usually get the Sunday puzzle by Thursday. My record is Monday, but I think that was an Xmas or Easter puzzle. They tend to be easy so we can spend more time with la familia. If by Friday night, I haven’t completed the puzzle I punish myself for not being smarter by putting it next to my plate every meal and wait until the Sunday solution comes out. No looking up answers. My tip: I’ve noticed that solutions do not begin with the same letter as clues. Tip 2: It helps to know the 9 muses, Gulf ports, Turkish/Moslem rulers, and European rivers.

  5. One rule you can count on is that no word appearing in a clue may appear in the answer to that clue.

    Another tip I have is that slang used in a clue can be a huge misdirection. For example, a clue of “Plastic option” (with no question mark!) can have the answer VISA or AMEX. And one puzzle I worked on had the clue “Coconut yield?” with the answer of IDEA.

    And then there are the three and four letter crosswordese words that newcomers won’t generally know. Someone put together a list of “Crosswordiest words” (along with most common answers on the same page) and all of these should be memorized, along with a general understanding what the word means. This list is clickable, with the clues being used in the NYT for that word being shown!

  6. Thank you, Garrett! I love that phrase “crosswordiest words.” But I also think good constructors do their best to avoid them.

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