August 15, 2007

How Constructors Try to Trick You

From page 61 of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, with new annotations in italics:

Early in the week, the New York Times crossword doesn’t strive to lure the solver down blind alleys. But later in the week, particularly on Friday and Saturday, trickery is par for the course.

Obscured capitalization: Because the first word in a clue is always capitalized, you can’t tell whether that word is a proper name, title, or uncapitalized word. You’ll need to use the crossing letters to be sure you’ve chosen the right interpretation. For example, [Hamlet’s cousin] was a dastardly clue for VILLAGE, lowercase-H hamlet being a synonym for village—but the typical solver likely thought of characters in Shakespeare’s capital-H Hamlet. One-word publication titles are often hidden in this way to clue EDITOR: [Post operative?] and [People person?] refer to a newspaper or magazine employee. Proper names can also be hidden this way: [Frost lines] clues VERSE from Robert Frost. (It seems like I've been seeing more and more of these lately.)

Phonetics and building blocks: Crosswords are a meaning-rich game of language, but sometimes a clue strips away a word’s meaning and focuses on its individual letters and sounds. [Fan sound] may be the SHORT A in the word fan rather than the roar of a crowd or the whirring of an appliance. [Castle feature?] can be SILENT T, and [Fiddle duet?] could be DEES (the letter D, doubled). This category of crossword entry is relatively new, and may include SOFT and HARD letters, SHORT or LONG vowels, SILENT letters, CAPITAL letters, or the spelled-out names of letters.

Hidden meanings: Some clues deliberately obscure the intended meaning of a key word. For example, [Refuse visitors] looks like it means “be a hermit,” but in one clue, “refuse” was used as a noun that’s pronounced differently from the verb. Who visits the refuse? RATS. [Hang out] is often taken to mean the intransitive verb, as in “We’re just going to hang out at home tonight.” In another puzzle, the answer was AIR DRY, as in “I’ll hang the clothes out to dry.” (Boy, do I love clues that toy with alternate meanings!)

Multi-word answers: Unexpected multi-word answers in short entries can be tricky, especially when they include one-letter components (X-RATED, Q-TIP, R AND R), abbreviations (ST PAUL, DR RUTH), or both (MR T). Some short answers are actually three words—A TO Z, SO DO I. (These aren't really tricks so much as possibilities solvers need to be hip to—if you're asking yourself what the heck ATOB means, try adding some spaces.)

Odd letter combinations: Unusual sequences of letters can make the solver think, “That can’t be right.” If the crossings for [Stylish, square-jawed male model] gave you a *QTY** letter pattern, you might doubt that those letters were correct because that letter sequence isn’t found in any English words. But the entry is actually two words: GQ TYPE, as in GQ magazine, formerly Gentlemen’s Quarterly. (When the letter sequence seems impossible, always check the crossings before you fill in a bunch of squares or erase a bunch of letters.)

Obscured verb tense: Words like put, set, or read make for ambiguous clues because they could be in either the past tense or the present tense.

Verb phrases: Because verb phrases can be clued with a one-word verb, solvers need to ba careful about automatically filling in an S at the end of the entry. For example, [Visits] could be STOPS BY, DROPS IN ON, or POPS OVER, none of which end with an S.

Disguised plurals: Words that look singular can serve as mass nouns, hiding the fact that the answer is a plural. For example, [Raw material] can be ORES; [Hot stuff], TAMALES.

The two-good-answers trap: Oftentimes two plausible answers share the same number of letters and may even have several letters in common—and some constructors relish in creating these traps. One of my personal favorites in this category is [Georgia neighbor], 7 letters. Starts with an A and ends with an A. Is it ALABAMA or ARMENIA? Don’t be wedded to an answer that seems 100% right but conflicts with most of the crossings—you may be caught in a trap. (Some of these things aren't deliberate traps. Sometimes IRE and IRK or SEETHE and SEE RED would both work, but that's not a clever trap—it's just a pair of related words with some common letters in common. Other times, solvers' minds lead them down the wrong path, through no fault of the puzzle. These wrong turns can be awfully entertaining.)

The “it” clue: The clue [Put a lid on it] seems to call for a verb like stifle(d) or quash(ed). Occasionally the answer word equates to the “it” in the clue rather than to the clue as a whole—so the answer may be a cooking POT. This is an exception to the usual rule that the clue and answer must be interchangeable in a sentence, with the same meaning both ways. (This kind of clue really bugs some people. I'm on the fence.)

Hidden -er meanings: Some nouns that end with -ER can be interpreted another way, as a noun made by adding -ER to a verb. For example, [French flower] may be the SEINE River, something that flows in France, a flow-er. [River tower] might be TUG, as in something that tows larger vessels in a river. (This kind of clue infuriates some people. They're not the height of cleverness, these clues, but they're like a little secret handshake for experienced solvers. If you know the "flower" trick already, you don't feel cheated when it comes up. And if you don't know the trick, it just seems unfair.)

Can you think of other constructor tricks that solvers may stumble on?