Messages from clues

Advanced thematic puzzles often use the clues to generate the letters of a message or instruction, which tells solvers what they need to do to complete the puzzle after filling the grid. This article looks at the most common ways to do this when setting a thematic puzzle. 

Extra words in clues 

A popular way to generate the letters towards a message is to include an extra word in some or all of the clues. Solvers have to take one letter (usually the first) from each word; these letters in clue order give the message. This device has been used so often that it is now discouraged by the editors of some crossword series (for example, the Listener), unless the redundant words also have some thematic significance.

It’s not surprising the extra word technique is so popular. It’s not hard to insert a redundant word into a clue without spoiling the clue’s surface reading. For example, let’s say that we need a clue for STARLING and that the initial letter of the extra word needs to be an M. A decent enough plain clue is: 

Looking around lake for bird (8) 

Now let’s include an extra word beginning with M: 

Looking around muddy lake for bird (8) 

The clue makes good literal sense with or without the inclusion of “muddy”. 

There are some pitfalls with this type of clue. Unless the setter takes trouble to disguise them, the extra words can stand out like a games teacher at a Mensa meeting. The solver can then make a good guess at which words are the redundant ones and not only strike them from the clues, but also work out the message without really trying. 

There’s also a danger that an extra word can unintentionally be justified as part of the clue and therefore is not redundant at all. Say we had decided to add a different extra word to the above example: 

Looking around lake for migratory bird (8) 

It might seem like a clever move as “migratory” and “bird” fit well together and the extra word is less obvious. But some starlings do migrate, so one can argue that “migratory” is a legitimate part of the definition. Conversely, some of the words we use to hold the parts of a clue together may appear as false candidates for the extra word if we’re not careful. One setter got round this in a puzzle I solved not long before writing this, by stating that clues contained an extra word of four or more letters. That rules out link words like “by”, “of”, “for” etc. Perhaps this should be mandatory for clues containing extra words? 

I have seen several variants of the extra word device. One goes something like this: 

“Every clue contains an extra word, which has only one letter in common with the answer. These letters, in clue order, spell out…” 

That means more work for the setter, but it may be worth it if it means your puzzle is more likely to be accepted! 

Extra letters in clues 

These clues usually have an instruction in the preamble along the lines of “One letter must be removed from each clue before solving. In clue order, these letters give an instruction…” 

Let’s stay with our starling for an example, and for consistency let’s assume we need an extra M again. 

Mel stops looking for bird (8) 

When we lose the extra M, the clue works like this: L (which can be spelt out as EL) stops (goes inside) STARING. You’ll notice right away that once the M has been removed, the clue makes no literal sense at all. If clues can make literal sense both with and without an extra word, it’s much harder to achieve this with an extra letter. It is possible in some cases, depending on the letter to be added, for example: 

Heather follows famous swinger (8) 

Here, the W in “swinger” is the extra letter, which leaves 

Heather follows famous singer (8) 

A bit corny, perhaps, using the pretty much crossword-only ling/Heather trick and the chestnut-flavoured “singer” for a bird. But at least both versions make sense, which is often not the case with this type of clue. 

The generally accepted convention is that removal of a letter from a word in the clue must leave a real word, but it doesn’t matter if the clue no longer makes literal sense. This is mentioned in the Guidance for Setters for the Listener, where the recommended wording for the preamble is: Each clue contains an extra letter. [Such a clue deprived of that letter does not necessarily make literal sense.] 

One thing to note is that the clue should only be solvable once the extra letter has been removed. What about this as a clue for STARLING with an extra M? 

Flyer is looking to restrict limes, primarily (8) 

It’s not hard to spot that “limes” is likely to be hiding the extra letter, as this is a rare example where the modified version – with “lies” instead of “limes” – actually has a more plausible surface reading. But since we’re only using the first letter of limes/lies, the clue works equally well with or without the extra letter. That’s not fair and should be avoided. 

Wordplay leads to extra letter 

The rubric usually reads like this: “The wordplay indicates the answer with an extra letter that is not entered in the grid.” Unlike the previous type of clue, the extra letter will not necessarily be contained in the clue itself; it may be indirectly indicated. Take these two examples (for our friendly STARLING again, with an M to be indicated): 

1. Flyer’s arms glint strangely (8) 

2. Singer, tenor, with limb encased by medical support (8) 

In example 1, the extra M appears in the clue as part of the anagram fodder. Jumbling up ARMS GLINT leads to STARLING with an M which is not entered in the grid. This clue could also be an “extra letters in clues” type, as ARS is a real word: the plural of AR, the spelling of the name for the letter R.

In example 2, the M is indicated but not contained in the wordplay, which is T + AR(m) inside SLING. It may look as if clues where the wordplay leads to an extra letter are complicated and fiddly to construct, but that isn’t really the case. You have several options when writing this type of clue. If you can’t find a way to indicate the extra letter indirectly, as in example 2, you can always include it in the fodder of an anagram (as in example 1) or a hidden word. Or you can even include it in an element of wordplay that also appears in the answer: 

Flyer’s arm left in pain (8) AR(m) L in STING 

You also don’t have to worry about “before and after” surface readings as you do with extra words, extra letters in clues or misprints (see next section). Perhaps that’s why, at the time of writing, this type of clue is now the go-to device for setters now that extra words are considered overused. 

There is one potential issue with this sort of clue which attracts comment from time to time. Take this example, where F is the extra letter:

Affair involving celebrity’s bird (8) STAR inside (F)LING

Some have pointed out that when we discard the F from “FSTARLING” the clue no longer works as a container and contents clue. It might look like a point of pedantry, but I think it’s a fair one. If you’re putting one word inside another and then ignoring a letter for the grid entry, it’s best to ensure that there are still letters on either side of the contained word. 

A variant of this sort of clue is where the wordplay indicates the answer with one letter omitted, rather than an extra letter. I have never tried to do this, but it’s clear that there are far more constraints here. Let’s say that our starling is nesting in the grid at an entry whose clue needs to generate an extra M. This is clearly impossible, as there is no M in STARLING. There is no single letter tweak (STARTING, STERLING etc.) to the entry that will yield a word which contains an M. If you’re lucky, you might be able to change a couple of letters to give STORMING or SMARTING, but what if you can’t? It is likely to require a major overhaul of at least part of the grid. To use this device you need to make sure that the answer at any given entry contains the letter you need for your message, and this could be a serious headache if there are certain unmovable thematic entries in your grid. I would suggest that this technique is best used for shorter messages that don’t span all the clues, or in combination with another way to generate the necessary letters. 


Most commonly, the preamble will tell you that “Clues contain a misprint of one letter in the definition. In clue order, the correct letters spell out…”  

Sometimes the misprint can be anywhere in the clue, and sometimes the actual misprinted letters lead to the message, but it’s most common for the misprint to be in the definition and the corrected letters used. I have found that it’s not an easy clue type to implement when setting a puzzle. I haven’t used this device very often, though, and perhaps one gets better at it with practice. The nature of a misprint requires that the clue should make literal sense after correction, but the original clue should make good surface sense too – not only for aesthetic reasons but because otherwise the misprints will be far too easy to spot. The difficulty lies in finding a fair definition of your answer which contains an instance of the required letter which, when changed to another letter (the misprint), not only produces a real word but doesn’t result in a nonsensical surface reading and/or compromise the cryptic grammar. Sometimes you may struggle to find any definition which contains the letter required for the message, let alone fulfils the other requirements. The example we’vebeen using illustrates this all too well. We need a definition of STARLING which contains the letter M, and we need to be able to change the M into another letter to make a different word.

Let’s look at the possible ways to define STARLING. Bird, flier/flyer, singer, winger (at a stretch), avian, feathered friend. Nothing doing there. There’s a second definition of STARLING in Chambers which would be OK in an advanced puzzle: piling protecting a bridge pier. That’s no good either. I ended up trawling through the Wikipedia entry for “starling” and discovered that there’s such a thing as a Malabar starling. Malabar is the name of an area in Indonesia, and Calabar is a city in Nigeria. So what about 

Girl tans in resort – could be Calabar? (8) 

Anagram of GIRL TANS – the C is corrected to an M for the message. 

I’m not saying it’s a particularly good clue. Neither Calabar nor Malabar are resorts, though that doesn’t really matter; more important is that the Malabar starling isn’t in Chambers, and I’m not sure if it’ll be familiar to anyone other than ornithologists. Still, it works, so long as you consider the definition to be fair. 

The best puzzles with misprinted definitions are fun to solve, and although it’s quite a challenge to set them, it’s an interesting one. It does make you think about definitions, as you have to be more inventive with these than you do in a plain puzzle. That can only be a good thing. 

Other methods 

This article is by no means exhaustive. I’ve seen other gimmicks used to generate messages or instructions, as well as variants of the techniques described above. For example, the numerical value of a given letter (e.g. first or last) in the answer indicates the position of the letter in the clue which needs to be selected. Let’s say that the numerical value of the first letter of answers indicates the position of the required letter in the clue. To get the letter M from a clue for STARLING, we could have  

Looking hard outside mill, finally finds bird (8) 

S is the 19th letter of the alphabet, and the 19th letter of the clue is the M we need. 

The disadvantage this technique is that clues often have to be rather waffly, and letter counting can be a chore which distracts from the enjoyment of solving the puzzle. 

I have no doubt that setters will come up with fascinating new ways of generating letters for messages and instructions in the future. Let us hope so!