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.