Which words can I use?

For some time I have been meaning to write a piece on which words are acceptable in different types of puzzle. Recently I received an e-mail asking this very question, so have finally got round to doing it. Most of this topic involves simple common sense, and I am aware that some of what follows may be stating what is obvious to many. I hope that this article will help new setters who may have doubts about what to put into their grids.

In theory any word that can be found in an English dictionary is available to the setter. Inflected forms can be used too – for example plurals and past or present participles. What’s more you can include phrases and sayings, names of literary, musical and cinematic works and names of fictional characters. Important real life figures can appear also – musicians, scientists, authors, politicians, in fact anybody who is well known for some contribution to history. You can use common names and place names too. The possibilities are almost endless!

But beware – there are certain conventions to be observed when choosing your words. Most of these are simple common sense, in place so that the solver is neither cheated nor offended. Let us look at each in turn.

'Offensive' words 

Although swear words have less shock value today than they did thirty years ago, these are best avoided. Even Private Eye, which has some very risqué clues in its crossword, stops short of including such words in the grids of its puzzles. I’ve seen the occasional rude word turn up in the wordplay of a clue, for example “Go! Piss off!” appeared in the Guardian as the wordplay for GOSSIP. Not long ago an Azed clue led to a mix of letters being put inside a term of abuse which rhymes with “flanker” to achieve the answer. I’m no prude and it didn’t shock me, but I felt it was rather cheap from a setter who is so insistent on rigid “rules” in crossword setting. Even a Listener a few years ago required the “arse” in “New Year’s Eve” to be inverted (it was a down clue) in accordance with the theme “Bottoms Up”. Yet putting such words in the grid itself is rather more blatant and has never been done to my knowledge in a published crossword. The nearest I have seen was a Guardian crossword that contained words like “Scunthorpe”, “Chardonnay”, “Twanky” and what for me was the giveaway, “Hot water”. This led to apoplexy from the Daily Mail – the headline was “Filth in Guardian Crossword” or something similar. At least the setter here (Paul, one of my favourite setters) could argue that it was all innocent and any perceived obscenity was coincidental and a result of the solver having a dirty mind! In summary, any word referred to in its dictionary definition as offensive or vulgar is best avoided. Common sense, really!

There are of course other words which, in recent years, have come to be regarded as more offensive than the strongest swear words. I refer of course to derogatory terms for people of certain races, sexual orientation and the like. Now I’m a great supporter of free speech and abhor the kind of Orwellian Newspeak that is being forced on us in the name of political correctness by well-meaning but misguided politicians and their lackeys. It seems that every day someone gets into trouble forsaying something that apparently demonstrates this or that “-ism”. On the other side of the coin, though, it is well known that certain words, particularly racial epithets, do cause many people a great deal of offence and I would be the first to agree that they have no place in crosswords. No editor would accept them anyway for fear of reprisals. Qualifying such words by defining them as “derogatory term for a...” won’t wash either. In short, if the dictionary gives a word as offensive or derogatory, or you have any doubts yourself, leave it out.

The Times has an interesting philosophy on allowed words. The guidelines used to be something like “we avoid words which would be out of place in polite drawing-room conversation.” Very quaint and probably meaningless to anyone under 60 – I believe that a more modern version is now in place. The idea is that the Times crossword avoids words with unpleasant or potentially embarrassing meanings: words like “semen”, “paedophile” and “miscarriage” are unlikely to appear in this paper’s puzzle. It’s not hard to understand why – many people treat crosswords as a pleasant bit of escapism and don’t want to be reminded of the more unpleasant or earthy sides of life. In any case a crossword clue is a kind of upmarket joke and I certainly can’t think of anything funny to say about the last two examples I’ve given. Perhaps that’s why in all my years of solving many different types of puzzle I have never seen Hitler make an appearance as an answer to a crossword clue.

Multiple word entries

Many answers involve two or more words. Phrases and sayings in particular are excellent fodder for a crossword and often lend themselves to good clues. But a note of caution – a mistake I have seen amongst amateur setters is to use groups of words that make sense in a given context but are not actually verifiable in any work of reference. For example GREEN BERET, GREEN BELT, GREEN FINGERS and GREEN PARTY are all fine as they actually mean something as they stand. However vague clusters of words like GREEN TROUSERS or GREEN CAR are not acceptable and should be avoided.

Inflected forms 

In addition to the word PASS, you can have PASSES, PASSED or PASSING. Plurals are particularly useful if you need a word ending in S and -ING forms when you need one ending in G. Take note though that too many of these can detract from the neatness of a puzzle and inflected words are often harder to clue convincingly.


There is no reason why you should not use a number as an answer. But be warned, some numbers make for decidedly better clues than others. For example FOUR could be a pair of braces, TWENTY and its multiples give the opportunity for play on the word “score”, NINE can refer to the muses and TWELVE the disciples. Yet what can you do with EIGHTY-THREE? The only way to define it is as “number” and there’s not (as far as I know) any great significance to this number. Also breaking down the word looks like a nightmare. I wouldn’t use numbers unless they can be clued imaginatively and even then, use them sparingly.

Foreign words 

These should only be used if they are commonly used in English, e.g. maître d', au fait or schadenfreude.


In a sense all words are equal but some are more equal than others, in that some words are crying out for a clue, others less so, and others are totally intractable. Words ending in -LY or -NESS are often hard to clue without being long-winded; to take an example, OMNIVOROUSNESS needs a definition like “the state of being all-devouring” and what on earth can you do with that? Long words that contain too few or too many vowels can be a problem too if there’s no decent homophone or alternative meaning. As a rule of thumb I try to formulate a rough idea of how I am going to clue a word before it goes into the grid – that way I save a lot of time later on. If your puzzle is constrained by certain words that must be there your options will be more limited, but generally it’s best to select words which at least look vaguely clueable.

Variant spellings 

In ordinary cryptics you should only use the most common English spellings of words. If in doubt check in a pocket dictionary, as these give only the most widely used spellings. Certainly dialect, obsolete or poetic spellings are to be avoided except in barred puzzles like the Listener. Some American spellings may be acceptable in the more advanced daily cryptics (from Telegraph level upwards) although these too are probably best avoided unless you are sure of the editorial policy. These days “-ise” and “-ize” are more or less interchangeable and you can use both with equal frequency.

It’s best to check the modern accepted spellings of foreign names with a reliable source, especially when transliteration is involved. For example these days Rachmaninov and Shostakovich are preferred over Rachmaninoff and Shostakovitch (rightly so) although Tchaikovsky has become written in stone even though Chaikovskiy would be more accurate. Some place names have gone through various mutations of spelling and it is essential to verify what is currently used; e.g. the country that used to be known as Belorussia is now exclusively known as Belarus. In more advanced cryptics you can use the names of places in their own language if well known, e.g. España, Roma or Napoli. Probably Praha and København (Prague and Copenhagen) would be too obscure. Note that for all spellings of words it is essential to use a reliable dictionary, atlas or encyclopaedia for reference. The Internet is NOT a reliable source – Google any number of spelling variants, correct or otherwise, and you will get hits for all or most of them as many web pages appear to be written by illiterates.

Proper nouns 

Proper nouns are fair game for inclusion in crossword grids. For example any reasonably common Christian name is acceptable, without the name having to refer to any specific person. Some judgement is needed here; for example names like Elspeth and Marmaduke are so outdated (apologies to any people of those names reading this!) that if they really have to be included, the definition must hint at this – “girl” or “boy” really doesn’t cut the mustard. Well-known foreign names are acceptable, e.g. René(e), Otto, Luigi or Jana – though some reference needs to be made in the definition to indicate their origin. If you are indicating that the answer is a name by the usual means – “man”, “woman”, “he”, “she” or even just “name” – you will win no friends if that name turns out to be one of those absurdities with which overpaid celebrities and pop stars burden their unfortunate children!

The convention regarding surnames is that in general, a surname must refer to someone specific. For example a clue like

Name for a saint? (7)

to give the answer GOODMAN is technically sound but unacceptable since the clue doesn’t refer to any specific Goodman. I haven’t found any satisfactory reason for this convention’s existence though I suspect that it’s because where there is a limited and accepted list of Christian names, surnames are far more diverse and the solver can’t be expected to know them all. The above clue can be rescued rather neatly by changing it to

Saint Benny? (7)

a clear reference to the jazz musician Benny Goodman. Possible exceptions to this rule are surnames that evoke some image e.g. Smith (common name), Murphy (Irishman), McDonald (Scotsman) and Jones (Welshman). Though these days the PC brigade may have something to say about the last three!

Fictional characters can be included but remember, writing crosswords is not an excuse for the setter to show how erudite s/he is. In an ordinary crossword fictional characters should be the main protagonists in well-known works by established writers. David Copperfield, Ophelia, Tess, Oliver Twist, Carmen, Rhett Butler, Bilbo Baggins, Captain Ahab, Siegfried, Frankenstein, Emma and as a more modern example, Harry Potter (assuming the books achieve longevity, which I hope they will) are all examples off the top of my head which should be OK in any cryptic crossword, though if you are setting at the most basic level (e.g. red top tabloids) some of these may not be suitable. In thematic puzzles, which aim at a higher level, you can be more adventurous, but even then it’s best to restrict yourself to important characters – a minor character, even in a well-known work, who appears for the first and last time on page 566 in order to say “Hail Caesar”, has no place in any crossword. There are no hard and fast rules as to whether you have to use both the character’s names or that by which they’re best known – although if there’s any ambiguity it’s probably best to use the full name.

The same principle of avoiding deliberate obscurity goes for the titles of works. The Marriage of Figaro, for example, could be included in almost any crossword. However Martinů’s opera Julietta, even though it’s a wonderfully entertaining, unjustly neglected piece with some gorgeous music, would have no place in any puzzle other than perhaps a Listener type puzzle based on this composer’s works. Likewise cult works, often in the science fiction or fantasy genre, undoubtedly have their merits but by nature a small following; much as you might love the splendid fantasy writer Hugh Cook, his books are not well known enough to make it in Crosswordland.

Figures from all walks of history and heritage are fair game for crossword puzzles. Again, you should only choose names that most reasonably educated people can be expected to know – and since most historical figures are often referred to by their surnames, you have the choice here of this or their full name. Albert Einstein or just Einstein, Oliver Cromwell or just Cromwell, (Sir) Edward Elgar or Elgar? In each case you can use both alternatives interchangeably.

Different publications have different views on the use of living people in crosswords. The Guardian and Independent positively encourage it, while the Times will not allow the names of living people except for the Queen. Maybe this latter is to avoid embarrassment in case of death or dishonour of the person mentioned. If submitting to a publication you will need to establish what the editorial policy is here. You need to be careful too in these litigious times that references to living people in your puzzle can’t be construed as libellous. A clue like

Prime Minister – b-----, confounded liar (5)

nice though it is, would probably be shunned by any crossword editor; ironic perhaps, when many newspapers seem to delight in ruining the reputations of anyone who remotely presents themselves as a target. 

Talking of living people brings me on to popular culture. Some papers are more sniffy about this than others, and there are a few aspects that I would like to examine. Let’s start with popular authors. More people probably read Stephen King, Tom Clancy or John Grisham in the last six weeks than read Tristram Shandy in the last fifty years. And although they may not be great literary writers they write thumping good stories that keep you up until the small hours. Yet while Sterne’s book appears in crosswords with the regularity of a drunken old soak at the off licence, popular authors seldom appear in crosswords apart from King, who featured in a themed puzzle once in the Guardian. Admittedly, in many cases the books by these writers have unmemorable names (The Conspiracy, The Plan, The Job, whatever) and the characters are mere ciphers whose names you forget when you finish the last page, even if you cared what was happening to them while you were reading. But I would say that it’s perfectly fair to use bestselling authors’ names in almost any crossword.

What about pop music? The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and several others have acquired a classic status and the artists (group name or the group members’ names if well known) along with their more popular songs are often used in puzzles. Even the Times crossword has featured the names of Beatles songs from time to time. If popular authors (and modern films, too) are an unexplored area in crossword puzzles, the world of pop certainly makes up for this. But beware! While the above names are likely to go down in history, the latest bands of pre-pubescent boys manufactured by some “talent” show are not. Indeed they may well have been forgotten in the time between editing and publication of your puzzle. The same goes for the winner of Big Brother and other moronic “reality” shows – the kind of pop/celebrity culture that has taken hold in Britain today is very ephemeral and you are best avoiding references to it if you want your puzzle to be of relevance in a year’s time. Even if I liked this sort of thing I’d still offer the same advice, and I’ve not always taken it myself. One of the first puzzles on this site made what I thought at the time to be a rather clever reference to a girl band called the Spice Girls. I rather liked them as it happens, but wonder how many people remember them now.

Place names are also fine for a puzzle, though as before, they have to be reasonably well known. Cities and towns, regions, mountains and rivers are all at the setter’s disposal. It is considered good practice that geographical names which are not extremely well known should have, in the clue, some indication of where they are e.g. continent, country or, if in Britain, region or county. It is not acceptable to use a village in Outer Mongolia with a population of 60 just because you can’t otherwise fill the grid.

As I’ve said, it’s common sense really, and I hope I have not insulted the reader’s intelligence too much! A problem for editors (including me, as the editor of this site) is that a good crossword can often be spoiled by the inclusion of a proper name which solvers can’t reasonably be expected to know. For advanced puzzles this may be overlooked if the clue offers enough help, but you are more likely to get a response along the lines of “look mate, we loved your puzzle and think you’re the greatest compiler since Ximenes but sorry, we can’t use a puzzle that expects the solver to know the name of the lighting director’s assistant in Friday the Thirteenth part 25.”


This is the most important section so I have left it until last. I stated earlier that any word verifiable in a dictionary is valid, providing it is not likely to cause offence. Yet anyone encountering a word like “acanthopterygian” in a crossword like Everyman or the Daily Express will feel aggrieved and rightly so. These puzzles set out to be at the easier end of the market and their audience do not want or expect to encounter obscure words such as this one. Perhaps it is helpful to divide the English vocabulary into three broad types.

Simple vocabulary: These are words that any native or competent foreign speaker will know, and which can be found in a small pocket dictionary.

Advanced vocabulary: These words tends to be the names of lesser known flora and fauna, scientific words, or words used by literary writers (or those with literary pretentions). A few examples would be IMMANENT, LAEVOROTATORY, DIK-DIK, MUGWUMP, WHITEBEAM and THRENODIC. Such words are unlikely to appear in a small dictionary, but can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary or Chambers. You are unlikely to hear them down the local pub but they do have some relevance to everyday life and the more you read, the more you will encounter words in this category (unless you restrict your reading to the red top tabloids or tacky bonkbusters!).

Obscure vocabulary: These words appear in Chambers (the standard reference for most crosswords) and other advanced dictionaries. Most people will go through their entire lives without encountering such words in any situation other than in crosswords or perhaps Scrabble. They are very specialised scientific words like the example I gave at the start of this section, uncommon variant spellings, words from Shakespeare, Spenser and other poets (AMENAUNCE, YCLEPT) and obsolete or dialect (especially Scottish) words such as MURLAIN or NASHGAB. I wonder how many of the dialect words given in Chambers are actually used in these days in the regions to which they are ascribed. Words in this category are usually unfamiliar even to those with a wide vocabulary.

Words in the simple vocabulary category can obviously be used in any crossword at any level of difficulty, be it the Listener or the quick cryptic in your free local paper. Advanced vocabulary words really shouldn’t start appearing until you get to daily broadsheet level and above. The crosswords in regional papers, magazines and tabloids almost never use words beyond the simple vocabulary category; if you are aiming at this level and want to use a word from this second category, make sure the clue is easy. Of the broadsheets, the Observer’s Everyman and the Daily Telegraph rarely stray into the advanced category. The Times and some setters in the Guardian make more use of advanced words than the other broadsheets, in my experience. Thematic puzzles such as appear in the Guardian by necessity may require a wider vocabulary to be used.

Words which count as obscure vocabulary are exclusively confined to barred puzzles like Azed, Mephisto, the Listener and the like. These puzzles use the full range of words in the dictionary, i.e. all three categories of vocabulary. I will point out on a personal note that my heart sinks when I see a set of clues stuffed with “Will’s this”, “Edmund’s that” and “Scottish the other” as it means a lot of dictionary trawling. I am aware that many people enjoy meeting such vocabulary in puzzles, hence the popularity of Azed and other puzzles that use obscure words for the sake of it. I like to meet new words and expand my vocabulary too, but only words that I am likely to use and encounter again.


I hope I have covered everything relevant to this topic here. I am aware that some of what I have written is stating what should be blindingly obvious, but I hope it is nevertheless helpful to aspiring setters unsure of what is acceptable and what is not. I would say that consistency in a puzzle is important – if a puzzle consists almost entirely of easy words and simple clues, a word like “sceuophylax” appearing in the same puzzle will appear out of place and suggest the setter has been lazy. These days there is plenty of software available to fill grids and “nothing else would fit” is noexcuse for an out-of-place obscurity in a simple puzzle. A good balance needs to be struck in any puzzle – too many proper names of one type in a puzzle is unpopular with solvers, for example. And finally, I would say that a setter who can come up with original, amusing and thought-provoking clues for common words shows far greater skill than one who sticks in a slew of little-known words just to make the puzzle more difficult.