The title is self-explanatory – here are my thoughts on using dictionaries and other aids to solve crossword puzzles.

Several years ago I was whiling away a wet Saturday afternoon with some friends. I’d picked up the Guardian and made a start on the crossword (Araucaria, if I recall correctly). After 30 minutes or so I laid the paper aside, grid complete. This aroused admiration from the others: “You’ve done it already?” “Think so,” I replied, “but I’m not sure about one of the answers. I’ll have to look it up in the dictionary when I get home.” The general air of admiration quickly changed to scorn. “What, you mean you cheat?”

I have encountered this attitude several times since, almost always from non-solvers, and I still don’t understand it. Why is confirming an unfamiliar word in a crossword cheating? In fact, is it possible to cheat, in the sense of “to be deceitful” (Chambers), at all?

The one obvious example where using a dictionary to help with a crossword is cheating is in crossword championships, where the conditions are controlled and the use of dictionaries is not allowed. Another, perhaps, is if you use a dictionary to aid solving, then go around boasting that you can solve all puzzles unaided. But I have never heard of either of these happening and really don’t imagine they ever will.

What about prize crosswords? Is it cheating to use a dictionary with these if you’re planning to send the puzzle in? Or to get a friend to help you, or use the Internet, or whatever? Most papers offer a prize for their weekend crosswords but I have never seen something like “All completed puzzles must be your own work, no dictionaries allowed” printed on the entry form. Apart from the fact that such a rule is obviously unenforceable, it is to be remembered that even if you do complete the puzzle unaided in a total of three minutes, your entry will be one of many and so the prize is awarded on a lottery basis. What’s more, the prizes are usually pretty measly – one paper offers a dictionary as first prize, which seems to me pretty daft since the successful solver is likely to possess at least one already! So I really don’t think it’s any big deal even if two people collaborate and both send the answers in. I did hear of one case where someone was unsure of one of the answers, so sent in several entries, each containing a different word for that answer!

Different Internet crossword forums vary in their attitude to giving hints and spoilers for “live” prize puzzles. On one forum, answers and explanations of themes are openly traded; on another, even mentioning a “live” puzzle will get your post deleted. I agree with those who say that asking complete strangers for help with a prize puzzle, and then sending it off to enter the prize draw, is unsportsmanlike and possibly constitutes cheating. On the other hand many solvers, including me, do these crosswords purely for the enjoyment of solving them and never send them off. In this case, why shouldn’t solvers use the Internet to find those elusive last answers? You have to wait three weeks for some published solutions, and so long as you’ve conceded defeat and are just putting yourself out of your misery, nobody can seriously accuse you of cheating.

I started to solve daily cryptic crosswords seriously back in the 1980s. An easy puzzle would take me 15 minutes whereas if it was a hard puzzle, such as Bunthorne, Araucaria or some of the Times, I’d still have a few blanks after an hour. Now I know many people who will get as far as they can with a puzzle then quite happily leave the rest of the answers blank and forget about it. Thus they never improve as solvers. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with finishing the things and not prepared to wait until the next day to see the answer. I have always been pretty good at solving puzzles “hangman” style – i.e. if I have enough letters I can usually spot words to fit and then match them tothe clue. Of course my vocabulary is by no means exhaustive and often I would not know any words that fit, so I would trawl through the dictionary to find words that fitted the combination of letters I already had. The sheer effort of doing this implanted many new words into my mind and as time went on, I found dictionary trawling less and less necessary and became a better solver. I am prepared to admit that I occasionally have to do it now, but I do not regard this as cheating, since I will readily admit that I could not complete the crossword unaided and needed to look up the answer. In other words, this is no more morally reprehensible than looking up the answer the next day when the solution is printed, and certainly cheaper than phoning a rip-off 0900 number to get the answer if you can’t wait a day. What’s more, I always make sure I understand why the answer is what it is.

Related to this is the idea that if clues were all of the clue (2) variety, how much point would there be in solving them? There are plenty of people who think that cryptic crosswords are a pointless exercise anyway, and not all of them are the sort that consider gossip about the Kardashians to be important news. I know plenty of intelligent people who feel that their time could be better spent on things other than crosswords (if I’ve just spent four hours struggling to finish a fiendish Listener puzzle, I tend to agree with them!) yet are fascinated by the idea that an ordinary phrase or sentence can be interpreted as a set of instructions to find a word. I somehow doubt that anyone but the most addicted crossword fiend would see any point, or pleasure for that matter, in learning that 

Of course, dictionary trawling is a lot easier these days with the advent of computers. There are many electronic wordfinders available – you type in the letters you have and are given possibilities of words that fit those letters. One of these is the CD-ROM version of the Chambers Dictionary. You can type ?O?R into a search box and you will be given a list of words from BOAR to YOUR, and by clicking on any one you get its definition. Chambers also has an anagram solver, a very useful tool. Great stuff, but this gives me a good opportunity to vent an online moan – that the Chambers software is bug-ridden and frustratingly poorly written. The main points here are:

- The program takes the gestation period of an elephant to load.

- You have to use ? to indicate a blank space in searches, thus necessitating the shift key. Why not a full stop?

- Hyphens and spaces in multiple word possibilities count as a character. So S?T?P will not return SET UP or SET-UP.

- For word patterns returning many entries, only the first 127 are shown.

Chambers did issue a patch which addressed the hyphens and spaces problem but this in turn created lots more bugs that weren’t there before. I soon returned to the original version. Despite the above moans, however, it is a very useful tool.

As stated above, I do not regard it as cheating to use such software to look up an answer you’re not going to get, so long as you are prepared to admit you didn’t finish the puzzle. I can’t see the point of starting a daily puzzle, getting half the clues and using an electronic wordfinder to fill in the blanks without really trying. It’s not cheating in the true sense of the word if you are honest about “solving” in this way, but surely it spoils the fun of trying to find the answers for yourself!

For me the story’s a bit different when we move on to barred crosswords. Azed and Mephisto puzzles use any word that can be found in the Chambers dictionary (apart from the offensive ones) both as answers and in the wordplay, in order to provide a greater challenge to the solver. Azed’s clueing is superb, which is why he is rightly regarded as a leading light among today’s compilers, and the compilers who write the Mephisto puzzles are paragons of cluemanship too. I do these every week and I generally try to solve them with only the book version of Chambers as an aid, but I will admit that if I am pushed for time, or feeling a bit jaded after a boozy weekend, I will occasionally do them in front of the computer with the Chambers program open. This means that I can use the wordfinder or anagram solver to find an obscure word for “the flap of skin under an aardvark’s scrotum” that was last used in conversation in 1946, and this takes only fraction of the time it does to trawl through the pages of the book version of Chambers.

Is that being lazy? Probably. Am I not properly entering into the spirit of things? Possibly, although I do always try to understand any clues I’ve “solved” using computer aids. But cheating? I don’t think so – I really don’t see any moral difference between thumbing through page after page of a dictionary and getting some wizardry to do it for me much more quickly. And as I’ve said, it is rare that I do these puzzles in this way; on these occasions the alternative would be not to do the puzzles at all, and so lose the opportunity to appreciate the compilers’ fine work.

Let’s move on to barred thematics, which I will illustrate with reference to the Listener. These too use obscure vocabulary and in addition, the presence of a theme puts obstacles, such as misprinted definitions or jumbled answers, in the way of solving the clues. I always use the Chambers program to solve these puzzles, along with any other aids I can find (the Internet being the most obvious example).

Statistics are kept of successful entries and a prize awarded every year to the solver with the most correct entries. In the event of a tie previous winners step down and/or previous years’ statistics are taken into account. Given the difficulty of these puzzles dictionary use is inevitable, but some Listener solvers feel that it is violating the rules of fair play to rely extensively on wordfinders and other electronic tools and then claim the prize for the most puzzles solved successfully. Fair enough, but many of the puzzles involve final stages which can’t be deduced with anything other than grey matter and to notch up a year’s worth of correct solutions, even with help, is an achievement most solvers (certainly including me) can only dream of. I can say with certainty that if I were to attempt an average Listener with no help at all, I would never finish it. With the book version of Chambers and other reference books, we’re probably looking at five or six hours. Using computer aids and the Internet the same puzzle will take me two or three hours.

I really get a kick when I spot the “penny drop moment” in a Listener that tells me “Ah! Shade in all the E’s and you get a picture of an elephant, in line with the quotation spelt out by the first letters of redundant words in the clues” or whatever. No computer can help with this nor, I suspect, will ever be able to. Getting the final stage of the puzzle and understanding the theme is the whole point of a Listener. Solving the clues and finding a quotation from misprinted letters or suchlike is the legwork, and I don’t feel I am cheating in the least if I use electronic aids to help solve the clues or, once I have got some of a quotation hidden in the clues or grid, I look on the Internet to see if I can find the rest of it. Why spend six hours on a puzzle when it’s possible to do it in half the time? I know that some people will strongly disagree with this and they have every right to do so, since I have expressed an opinion, not a fact. There are those who like to spend a whole weekend on the Listener puzzle and who am I to suggest that they shouldn’t? However I have come to the point where I am not prepared, except in exceptional circumstances, to spend more than four hours on any one puzzle – I like to get it done in good time so that I have time for other activities – listening to music, socialising etc. And I don’t feel bad about using any means possible to enable me to do so.

As before I’ll accept accusations of laziness or taking the easy way out, but not of cheating. I am not going to gain the all correct “solver silver salver” that’s awarded every year for all correct entries – not just because these days I never send Listener (or any prize puzzles) in, but also because I don’t bother with the four numerical puzzles that appear each year. I complete Listener puzzles purely for my own pleasure. I am not putting my solving statistics up for comparison with greater minds than mine who may solve the puzzles with brainpower alone, thus I use electronic tools with a clear conscience. One more point regarding the Listener and other barred thematic puzzles (Saturday Independent, Sunday Telegraph Enigmatic Variations etc). I have sometimes, but fortunately rarely, come across puzzles containing clues like this:

Will’s keen to meet Jock’s friend inside Edmund’s bar for a rare beer

Don’t try to solve it – despite the plausible surface reading there is no answer. The clue illustrates that some setters (I’ve been guilty of it too sometimes, I think) pepper their clues with so many obscure references that the clues are a grind to solve. It would require a Shakespearean word with a Scottish dialect word to be included in a Spenserian word to give an obscure word for a beer. Perhaps the example’s a bit exaggerated, but if the setter’s prepared to make a clue as deliberately obscure and almost unsolvable as this, I don’t have a problem with using any means possible to solve it!

In summary, I have tried to show that I don’t believe that it is possible to cheat, in its true sense, in a crossword other than in a competition where dictionaries are outlawed. I know some people who think crossing out the numbers of solved clues or putting a separating line in the grid when the answer contains two words is beyond the pale. Personally I think that’s going too far, but if it rocks their boat, fine. I believe using a dictionary to confirm or find entries is perfectly acceptable, so long as you admit it, and it can be a learning process too. Crossword solving is not a religion – it’s meant to be fun and nothing more. It’s like a pleasant journey in a sense, and what does it matter how you get from A to B as long as it’s comfortable and you enjoy it?