&lit clues

This is a discussion of an ingenious type of crossword clue. 

One of the first things cryptic crossword solvers learn is that cryptic clues consist of two parts: a definition of the answer, and an alternative means to arrive at the answer. The latter is a set of instructions to construct the answer from other words, parts of words or abbreviations, and is usually called the wordplay. Often the definition and wordplay are connected by a neutral link word in order that the clue reads well as a sentence. The one exception is the cryptic definition only clue where only the definition is given, but it is worded in such a way that it is designed to mislead.

Occasionally, you will come across a clue like this old chestnut:

Terribly angered? (7) 

“Terribly” screams “anagram” at you and as there’s only one other word in the clue, the answer’s got to be DERANGE, ENRAGED, GRANDEE or GRENADE. But where’s the definition? 

It’s tempting to wonder if the gremlins have crept in and there are words missing from the clue, but look again. “Angered” is quite a good definition of “enraged”, and “terribly angered” an even better one, which captures the fine nuance of difference between “angered” and “enraged”. For example, if they cancelled my favourite TV programme because the football ran over, I would be angered. If they cancelled it and put Mamma Mia! on instead, I would be terribly angered and, indeed, enraged (to say the least!). 

So what’s happening here is that the whole of the clue acts as the wordplay, and also as the definition. Here, every word in the clue is doing double duty. It’s bad form for only some of the words in the clue to do double duty, such as the “at” in this clue for CAPTAIN: 

Skipper in cap at sea (7) 

But when every word has two functions, so that the wordplay is also the definition and vice versa, we have a special type of clue, which is called an &lit clue (also written & Lit.). This stands for “and literally” – and though many crossword buffs now agree it’s not a very accurate description, it’s become a fixed part of crossword terminology. 

&lit clues are often anagrams, as in the example above, or charades, like this familiar old friend: 

I’m a leader of Muslims (4) 

which gives us IMAM. 

&lits sometimes are hidden word clues, usually for short words, such as 

Part of alphabet, Athenian? (4) 

for BETA. Other clue types, such as reversals and one-word-inside-another clues, can also be &lits of course but they tend to be rarer, as it’s much more difficult to incorporate the necessary indicators – “back” or “inside” for example – in such a way that they also contribute to the definition aspect tothe clue. This clue of mine from the FT, for a down answer, is both reversal and container-and-contents: 

Elevated noble penning lines (5) 

RY (railway) in NOB all reversed to give (Lord) BYRON 

(These days I’m not sure about “elevated” as a reversal indicator, for the same reason I don’t much like “raised” – as these words imply that something is in a higher position, rather than moving upwards. Still, I was pleased with it at the time, and it was among one contributor’s favourite clues on the Fifteen Squared blog.) 

You’ll notice that many &lit clues have a question mark at the end. This tends to be necessary because the definitions afforded by the clues are usually a bit of a stretch, but also it’s a way of telling the solver that there’s something a bit unusual going on. An exclamation mark would serve the latter purpose just as well, but many setters (including me) tend to be rather sparing with exclamation marks, as they can be misinterpreted as the setter saying “Gosh! Aren’t I good!” 

&lit clues are often concise, which is hardly surprising as the definition and wordplay of the clue overlap. It can be the case, though, that the setter tries to force an &lit clue out of a word with the result that the clue is contrived, long and cumbersome. I should know – I’ve done it myself often enough. The sort of thing I mean is this clue (which I’ve just made up) for the great man himself, WAGNER: 

First off, one composer ultimately associated with Walküre and Götterdämmerung, primarily (6) 

Apart from being awful, this clue does illustrate one of the potential pitfalls of &lit clues, namely that solvers may enter the answer from the definition without bothering to untangle – or without even noticing – the wordplay involved. In a case like this example I wouldn’t blame them, but sometimes even good &lit clues are easily gettable from the definition so that the solver doesn’t need the wordplay, and the setter’s ingenuity is wasted. There’s an excellent discussion about this here (where, it so happens, a certain setter is highly praised by an esteemed colleague, but of course I shan’t mention that… Oh.). 

My take on this is that it doesn’t matter too much. &lit clues may not be appreciated so much by beginners – and possibly those who speed-solve – but I think the majority of solvers like to savour their puzzles and therefore will make the effort to understand fully what is going on in each clue. 

It’s understandable that many setters feel that they haven’t earned their chops until they’ve got a few &lits under their belt, but it’s better to wait for a suitable opportunity to come along (and it will) rather than put together the cruciverbal equivalent of a Frankenstein monster. A tip here: “primarily”, “principally” or “ultimately” are very useful for &lits, as there are often single letters to be accounted for in the wordplay and these words seldom interfere with the definition. But if you need more than one of these in a single clue, you’re likely to end up with the sort of galumphing heffalump that’s exemplified by my WAGNER clue. 

It’s interesting to observe that &lit clues often dominate advanced clue-writing competitions. It’s not hard to see why: they’re regarded by many as the Holy Grail of cluemanship, and that’s got to count for something in a competition, hasn’t it? These clues are very much the opposite of the stuff I’ve been talking about in the previous paragraphs; they are very elegant and well-written, and extremely clever. Too clever, sometimes? 

I always have to reach for the blood pressure pills when some pillock on a crossword blog comments that I, or other setters I admire, have been too clever. My reaction – my only printable reaction anyway – is “OK, so you’d like me to be more stupid? Fine! I can do stupid really well!” So when I say that the excellent clues that often win competitions can be too clever I don’t in any way mean to disparage those who write them; quite the opposite in fact. I just can’t help feeling that the inevitable result of spending hours, or even days, writing a single clue that outsmarts the competition is that you’ll often come up with something so crafty that it will be totally impenetrable to 99% of solvers. Even with the answer provided, notes are usually needed to help with the parsing. I should add that I have never actually submitted a clue to these competitions, so this isn’t a case of sour grapes. 

I’ve said already that opportunities for &lit clues will come along to setters who look out for them, but how do you recognise these opportunities? Sometimes, it just falls naturally into place. You notice fairly quickly that the answer can be rearranged or broken down into wordplay that is also a definition. I think this is quite likely to have been the case when the clue for ENRAGED first came into being. 

Other times you will have to work rather harder. You can see that part of the answer lends itself rather nicely to an &lit, but it takes quite a bit of effort to get the rest of the clue to conform, and you may find in the end that it won’t work at all without the kind of tortuous contrivance that we’ve seen is best avoided. Let’s take the example of MOTOR RACING. It’s got CAR reversed in RING, which suggests something like “car going around in circuit” and that’s a great start. Unfortunately, the remaining MOTO doesn’t look promising at all. I’ve played around with it for a while and gone round pointlessly in circles (just like motor racing, really). 

There’s no shame in abandoning an &lit clue that doesn’t come out right, and what’s more, there is an alternative you can sometimes use if you’ve got close but can’t quite get the wording right. This is the semi &lit. 

A clue of mine for the Independent: 

They give resistance to Tories violently? (7) 

In recent times violent protests have invariably been directed at Conservative governments, so the whole clue’s a reasonable definition of RIOTERS. It isn’t a true &lit though; as the wordplay doesn’t include the “they”. 

What we have is wordplay that leads to RIOTERS (give R to an anagram of TORIES) and a very weak definition (“they”) that simply tells us we’re looking for some people. But taken as a whole, the clue provides a full definition. It’s often the case that necessary pronouns like “he”, “she”, “it”, “they” and “this” can’t be accommodated in the wordplay to form an exact &lit, so they’re added to the beginning or end of the clue. We call these clues semi &lit. 

It would be unfair to regard semi &lit clues merely as failed &lits; very often they are excellent clues in their own right. 

Here are two other misconceptions about &lit clues. First, the clue when read as a definition may be a bit fanciful, but it must be a definition and not just an open-ended statement. For example: 

I meant otherwise (6) 

as a clue for INMATE is useless. Sure, most cons didn’t mean to get sent to chokey, but the statement could apply equally well to so many other situations it gives no help at all as to what the definition should be. 

The second common misconception, perhaps fostered by the term “and literally” itself, is that any clue that makes a true statement is an &lit. For example take this clue 

Hit the woman? One may be in hot water (6) 

for BATHER. Certainly one may – and damn well should – be in hot water for hitting a woman, but in no way is the whole clue a definition of BATHER so the clue is not &lit, or even semi &lit. It doesn’t matter – it’s still a perfectly good clue. 

I usually try to include at least one &lit (or semi &lit) clue in my crosswords. Most commonly I’ll investigate &lit possibilities for hidden word clues, to make them more interesting, and also for long words or phrases, especially those which aren’t easy to define in a way which isn’t obvious or dull. And of course I’ll take any opportunities for &lit clues which come up for other words. 

I’ll leave you with one of the best &lits I have ever come across, from Ximenes: 

We’ll get excited with Ring seat (10) 

Highlight the following space WAGNERITES for the answer.