Times Crossword House Style

This is a list of points about the Times puzzle that differ from at least some other cryptic xwds. (Posts with information like this that should be good advice for ever will be stored under the new “tips&tricks” tag.) Occasionally setters seem to take rules like this as a challenge and try to get rule-breaking clues accepted, and mistakes can be made, so you should ultimately rely on common sense and general principles of cryptic cluemanship, rather than strict application of this list of house rules derived partly from observation.

Some of these points are taken from a list on pp. 50-52 of Brian Greer’s “How to solve the Times Crossword” – if setters know of changes to these since Brian’s spell as editor (1995-2000), they are welcome to tell me by comment or e-mail. I’ll update this posting with any points that I realise I’ve omitted as a result of future discussions.

Rules about clues

Hidden words
No more than one ‘pure’ hidden word clue per puzzle. (Reversed hidden words aren’t ‘pure’ in this context.) (Limits like this are for 15×15 puzzles – if there are limits for jumbos, I don’t know what the numbers are.)

The exact rules are hard to determine by observation, but it seems to be that if the pronunciations in the reference dictionaries match, that’s good enough. This allows post-vocalic R’s to be ignored, as in RP – in an example from 17/1/2008, gutta-percha = “gutter percher”.

No more than 5 pure anagrams.

One-way link words
“Link words” are ones between def. and wordplay – e.g. “in” or “as”. These two can be used regardless of the order of def. and wordplay. The following two must be used with one order only:
{wordplay} for {def}
{def} from {wordplay}

Capital letters
Words that require capital letters in the cryptic reading must have them. However, ‘deceptive capitalisation’ is permitted. In other words, a word with a capital letter in the clue doesn’t necessarily have a wordplay meaning requiring a capital letter – so Joanna Strong’s instrument (10) could be PIANO,FORTE. This example shows why I’m not a Times setter and probably never will be – Times setters avoid cheesy fictional names which are usually a dead giveaway, and even more so, clashes of word-meanings between the def. and wordplay.

“one” in a clue can indicate I in an answer, but not A.

Definition by example
To use “bay” in a clue to mean “horse” in an answer used to require a word like “perhaps” to indicate definition by example. Under Richard Browne, this is not always required.

‘to’ in the infinitive in a clue can be ignored in the answer – e.g. It’s trendy to like old colour for IN,DIG,O

Numbers in digits
In clues, these point to answers to other clues. But only in print – for reasons I don’t understand, the web-site version of the puzzle often uses (e.g.) “three” for “3”.

Reference dictionaries
The vast majority of answers other than proper nouns are in Collins English Dictionary and/or the Concise Oxford. My estimate is that ‘vast majority’ here means at least 95%. Occasionally, words or meanings outside these are used. A recent example is ‘homer’ = biased referee/umpire. The weird stuff found in Chambers – taghairm, kilfud-yoking, wagger-pagger-bagger, etc. etc. ad infinitum – is never used. (Exception: the ‘Club Monthly Special’ on the Times Crossword Club site). [Note, Sept. 2008: “99.5%” above replaced by “95” after a few recent words that seem to be in Chambers only.]

The Times puzzle does not let setters use all the abbreviations in any dictionary. For one-letter abbrev’s in particular, there is believed to be a fairly short list of acceptable ones.

Rules about answers

Living people
Names of individual living people are not used as answers (or clue content), unless they mean something else, like ‘John Dory’. But names of (well-known) pop groups (e.g. ABBA in the 4/1/2008 puzzle) are apparently allowed. Sole exception: the reigning monarch can be referred to, usually as a way of indicating ER in the answer.

Drawing room conversation
Things like serious illnesses or derogatory terms are not used as answers. All answers and clue content used to be suitable for “polite drawing room conversation” but some risqué references are permitted now that would not have been allowed in the past. (No. 23652 has an example, for those with access to archived puzzles).

Brand names
As far as I know these are not allowed.

Endings and beginnings
Few -S plurals (limit of three?), minimal repetition of common prefixes and suffixes – you’re unlikely to get two UN- words in the same puzzle for instance. This includes derived word-forms like -ING and -LY.

Rules about grids

Setters choose grids from a set managed by the xwd editor. Since about 1965, all grids in this set have followed three significant rules:

  • No more than half the letters in any answer are unchecked
  • There are never more than two unchecked letters in succession in any answer
  • Double unches are never the first or last two letters of an answer

Added based on comments on 23691: no two plural nouns or third person singular verb forms should intersect at their final S – e.g. CROSSWORDS and SOLVES. Setters are also advised to avoid filling the east vertical or south horizontal with “easy” letters as in e.g. SETTERS.

Themes and Ninas

Themes are rare in Times puzzles but are seen occasionally – maybe twice a year in the 15×15 cryptic. “Ninas” (messages in the grid, or subtle themes that don’t have to be spotted to help solve the puzzle) appear more often – maybe twice a month.

14 comments on “Times Crossword House Style”

  1. Hello-can you help!Do not understand the following:
    “No more than half the letters in any answer are unchecked.
    There are never more than two unchecked letters in succession in any answer.
    Double unches are never the first or last two letters of an answer”.

    By “unchecked”,do you mean crossed by other clues?
    What is an unche,a word that begins or ends in un ?
    Thanks Don James

    1. The squares where answers cross are the checked ones. The ones that don’t intersect with others are unchecked letters, or “unches” for short.
  2. When you like a clue,and give it your “cod”,what’s that?
    Clue Of the Day?
    Many thanks again-Don James
    1. COD in this context does mean ‘clue of the day’, yes. Watch out, though, for times when it means “Concise Oxford Dictionary”, a main reference for the Times puzzle.
  3. Thanks Peter. I didn’t know about the rule that ‘one’ is ‘i’ not ‘a’ for instance. Wouldn’t have helped me recently when I put in ‘amphal’ for ‘imphal’ I don’t think but will help I’m sure with anagram fodder. Most of the rest I sort of know subliminally but not all, for instance the 5 anagrams rule. What’s ‘John Dory’?
  4. I never see the print version of The Times so thought perhaps the reason numbers were spelled out was simply typical newspaper style of spelling 1-9, and digits for 10 upwards. Until I spotted ‘thirteen’ the other day.
  5. what are the rules/conventions for “contrived” words? The Times (while being v. proper and restrained wrt ‘drawing room conversation’) seems to allow semantic constructions, typically adjectives and adverbs, like “apply” to mean “like an apple” and “stingy” to mean “something that stings” or (in today’s Times), “finish” to mean “fairly good”.

    My guess is these have to be words in their own right (spelling) but are allowed to have fanciful and misleading definitions? For instance, would “peary” be allowed to mean “like a pear” and refer to the (fortunately dead) polar explorer? but “orangy” wouldn’t be ok?

    1. Sorry for the late reply – somehow missed this one. I think you’ve deduced correctly, with the nit-pick exception that Peary would need a capital letter to look convincing.
  6. How far can one stretch these? For example ‘en’ and ‘au’ in French and ‘der’ in German seem ok. What about, for example ‘bitte’?

    I guess it’s to do with usage and general knowledge of languages and that it’s difficult to give a definitive answer. But I just wondered since I have a clue in mind

  7. Many thanks Peter. Very helpful.

    Where, if anywhere, can a list be found of abbreviations considered acceptable in Times crosswords?

    1. It’s nice to know that a posting from nearly 9 years ago is still getting read.

      Tim Moorey’s “How to Crack Cryptic Crosswords” includes a list, but it’s apparently related to the abbrevs in clues in the book, some of which are not Times puzzles.

      The current official list is AFAIK only given to the Times setters, and may change from time to time. My understanding is that if you sat down with Collins English Dictionary and the Concise Oxford and identified the abbrevs in both, you’d have something very close to the official list.

      [And the ST is different – no official list, just recommended dictionaries and the possibility that the editor could be persuaded that something is OK based on real life rather than dictionary content. Rare but possible.]

  8. nice to know that you’re still replying

    I wouldn’t have thought such words as INNIT would be overheard in polite drawing rooms, but I’ve seen such used

    1. The polite drawing room / vicarage breakfast table standard has mostly gone. It was always a bit of a fiction as bits of cockney rhyming slang like china=mate and butchers=look were fair game in the Times crossword but pretty unlikely in those places.

      Edited at 2019-11-29 09:03 am (UTC)

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