|EJ's Crosswords - Clues I DON'T like|
|Contact me||Latest addition (19 July '06)
This spin-off feature from my 'clues I like' section began because, sadly, I see as many clues I dislike as ones I admire. It struck me that though it's good to celebrate enjoyable clues, there are probably more lessons to be learned from unsatisfactory clues, especially if they're analysed objectively (though it does present me with an opportunity to let off a bit of steam!).
clues I choose will come from puzzles published in broadsheets (or on
major cryptic crosswords sites). Not even the most exalted setter will
escape. However, the setter and the newspaper/site will not be named.* I'm
after the unsatisfactory clue, not the setter. Also, I'll be
criticizing as a solver, not as a setter. I'll do my best not to let my personal views intrude, so don't expect subjective descriptions like 'bad', 'poor' or 'unsound' - that's for you to decide.
|Clues I DON'T like|
|The example below, one of my
clues, will always head the list!
The most recent addition (19 July '06) immediately follows this one.
company, Northern Petroleum, swapping right and left (4,4)
Ans. FILM NOIR Explanation of wordplay: FIRM + N + OIL with 'R' and 'L' swapping places.
I think there's nothing wrong with my clue, technically - and if the surface reading is not wonderful, that doesn't really affect the solving. However, my main concern is the combination of an unhelpful definition ('projected style') with rather tricky wordplay. It wouldn't have been so bad had this not been the puzzle's key solution. Several major clues, whose answers were examples of film noir, made reference to this one. Why didn't I see this problem before submission? Probably because I was preoccupied with not making it too easy - I think you'll agree it's hard to define the solution in an unobvious way. At the time, I thought I'd come up with a rather clever definition; now it seems almost impossible to solve 'cold'. I'm afraid this may well have turned what should have been an entertaining themed puzzle into a hard unrewarding slog for many. An example of how one unsatisfactory clue could spoil a whole crossword?
As a PS, I wonder if 'black picture'
would have been a better definition? In fact, that might make for a
more readable clue on the lines of
|Example clue published June '06:|
|It makes me boil inside when one is used at the pub (6,5) |
Ans. MOBILE PHONE (arrived at - I think - by: anag. of ME BOIL + PH (= pub) + ONE)
This clue is presumably trying to be an & lit type (i.e. where the whole of the clue is a definition and the whole of the clue forms the wordplay/subsidiary indication). Now I'll admit I don't like & lits much. I prefer a clue that's an entertaining challenge - which & lits usually aren't (more an opportunity for the setter to show off, it seems to me). However, I recognise that many solvers regard & lits very highly and I bow to popular opinion. Even their greatest admirer, though, must surely admit there are too many half-baked & lits around. And, if I've understood the above clue correctly, this falls into the 'half-baked category.
The clue as a definition is fine; the trouble comes when one tries to analyse the wordplay. It seems pretty clear it's made up of three elements: ME BOIL (anag) / PH / ONE. But this raises a few questions:
1) where's the anag. indicator? It can't be 'it makes' because that phrase is used here to mean "mobile phone [it] is made up of [makes] ... the following elements".
2) what's the 'inside' doing there? (Perhaps to indicate that an anag. of BOIL goes inside ME? If so, where's the anag. indicator for 'boil'?)
3) Does 'one is used at the pub' really indicate 'ONE goes after PH'? I don't think so (as Seinfeld used to say).
It seems to me the wordplay fails on several counts - I can only assume this element was made to fit the &lit idea, with no real regard for proper syntax. Surely the point of an &lit is that it combines a good definition with impeccable wordplay? This clue could be partially righted by re-wording the start as:
'It makes me boil horribly inside ...'
However, how to finish it (with correct wordplay syntax) without losing the &lit quality? I can't - can you?
|Example clue published May '06:|
|Breaks said to be for a drink (8) |
Ans. SCHNAPPS (sounds like 'snaps')
A homonym? Does anyone say 'schnapps' without sounding the 'h'? The wordplay is presumably supposed to be:
(sounds like) 'breaks' = SCHNAPPS - so what is 'to be' doing in the clue?
With just a bit more thought I'm sure this clue could be greatly improved. How about this?
'Drink breaks announced by drunk? (8)' - i.e. 'snaps' becomes 'shnapps' in slurred speech.
|Example clue published April '06:|
|Occupier of post kept in the dark, which is bad for the eye (4) |
Ans. STYE - this is arrived at, apparently, by removing LIT from STYLITE ('kept in dark' indicating not lit).
A Stylite is a follower of St. Stylites who spent much of his life atop a high pillar/post from which he preached. (I'm grateful to 'lagopus' at Guardian Talk Crosswords for making this connection, which I'd never have made myself in a million years.)
Excellent surface reading and on the face of it a neat clueing idea - but it made me see red. First of all, let me say that I got the answer immediately - from the main definition, "which is bad for the eye" ('stye' being an old crossword chestnut). However, I then spent more time trying to understand this clue than I did on solving the rest of the puzzle. When I did see the explanation, via 'lagopus', far from being delighted by its cleverness, I felt disappointed and cheated.
Firstly, the definition used in the wordplay element: if the solution had been STYLITE then "occupier of post" would have been a fair and rather neat bit of misdirection (though something like "preacher occupying post" would be fairer, given that this is hardly a well-known word). I might then have arrived at STYLITE via the wordplay and dredged up the pole-occupying connection from the back of my mind (or checked in a reference book). However, as a definition of a word from which a subtraction must be made to arrive at the right solution, it is far too vague.
Then there's the wordplay, "kept in the dark" = "not lit" - i.e. remove LIT. Well, to me, this is taking indirectness one step too far! I think this bit could have been worded something like "not benefiting from light" - though even this is still too hard in my book. Much better would have been "not lit".
For me, this clue manages to combine two most unsatisfying features: it was too easy to solve in the first place, while at the same time being virtually impossible to explain. In trying to be too clever-clever, the clue fails in its duty to the solver! I offer the following as an alternative (though I don't think I'd go for the STY(LIT)E device myself, as a setter):
Preacher from pillar, if not lit, is an annoyance to the observer (4) - not brilliant but much fairer, I suggest.
|Example clue published March '06:|
|Professed to make Chubby weigh less (5) |
Ans. OVERT - arrived at, presumably by removing WEIGH from OVER(weigh)T
A nice clueing idea which reads well. However, I can't see any way in which 'weigh less' signifies to the solver that 'weigh' is to be removed from 'overweight'. For the wordplay to work, the clue needs to be "Professed to make Chubby less weigh" (or "weigh-less"), which of course ruins the surface reading.
Admittedly, this is not a very difficult clue to solve and I quickly got the answer. However, my hackles rose at the 'weigh less', not because it breaks some pedantic rule of 'Ximenes' or any other 'authority' but because the syntax of the wordplay is just plain wrong. As a solver, I feel cheated when this sort of thing happens (if there's one 'rule' I think should never be broken it's that technically sound, fair wordplay must take precedence over the surface reading). As it is, I come across this trangression more and more, even in the clues of highly-regarded setters. What's worse, it often seems to arise from mere carelessness or laziness, as many such clues need only a slight adjustment to suit both the wordplay and the surface. True, in this example there's no easy remedy and, as a setter, I'd probably abandon the 'weigh less' idea.*
Does it matter? Well, it certainly would if the solution were an uncommon/obscure word and the solver needed all the help going but I think it matters for all clues. As a solver, I don't want to be told, in effect, "well, you get the rough idea". Sloppiness in clue-setting must not be allowed to prevail! A clue's wordplay should provide precise instructions to the solver and the real art of the setter is to stick to this scrupulously while simultaneously putting up a smokescreen.
* All I can think of as an alternative is: 'Public "Chubby Weigh-off" (5)'
but some might object to the capital 'W' and the hyphen - not to mention the quotation marks!
|Example clue published Mar '04:|
|When to know Azed's in
greeting Jewish people (9) Ans. ASHKENAZI
I think this is made up of: As + (ken + AZ inside hi)
I was unfamiliar with the ans. and couldn't guess it even when I had ?S?K???Z? Solving it relied entirely on unscrambling the wordplay but this I couldn't do and had to resort to a wordfinder.
To my annoyance I then realised there was a flaw in the wordplay - the apostrophe 's' in Azed's (i.e. Azed is …). If this is taken along with the preceding 'to', doesn't it actually imply that the whole of (as + ken + AZ) is inside hi (not just ken + AZ)? That's how I saw it when going through - and abandoning - the possible combinations. I certainly never saw it in the way the setter intended. Would it not have been better formulated as: "When to know Azed in greeting Jewish people (9)"?
Surface reading's not great but no worse than the original.
Am I nit-picking? I don't think so. This is not an easy word, so there was extra cause to avoid dubious wordplay. However, the unfairly misleading apostrophe (not uncommon in clues - usually there for the surface reading) was allowed to stand. I suggest the following as a fairer clue - with I think better surface reading: "Jewish people, when greeting / seizing Barbie's friend, Azed (9)"
|Example clue published Feb '04:|
|A fish out of water
returned Pitt (4) Ans.BRAD
PLEASE TELL ME I'M WRONG, but I think this is arrived at by: DA(R)B reversed [R=river=water?]
If I am right, then the clue requires us to:
1) Guess a word for fish ('DAB') and reverse it - that's perfectly OK;
2) Work out that water = 'river' which abbreviates to 'r' (an 'indirect abbreviation', you might say!)
3) Realise that 'out of' = 'outside of' (no doubt it can be so used - but by whom other than a crossword setter?)
4) Realise that the clue's indefinite article is to be totally ignored.
(Yes, setters often stick in a gratuitous 'a' - but it's not essential for the surface reading here.)
I think the clue would be fairer to
If it's agreed that 2) and 3) above are at the very least questionable clueing devices, can they nevertheless be justified? Your view might well be coloured by knowing who the setter was - but I'm not going to say. Witty audacity by a master setter designed to surprise and amuse the solver? Quite unfair liberty-taking by a lesser setter, that's just a clumsy excuse to use the "fish out of water" phrase and so appear smart? What do you think?
I have a feeling that having written all this, I'm going to be made a fool of by some erudite type telling me that the wordplay is actually 'DARB' reversed, a 'darb' being a rare Australian fish able to survive for long periods when the river dries up!
|Example clue published Feb '04:|
|Empty-headed steward is a
juvenile (5) Ans. ACTOR
My analysis of the wordplay: (F)ACTOR [factor = steward? juvenile = actor]
Nice surface reading but ... There are three things about it I don't like:
The definition: how often is 'juvenile' (or even 'juvenile lead') used of an actor these days? More importantly, 'juvenile' does not equal 'actor' but a sort of actor. Shouldn't there be a 'perhaps' or at least a question mark after it?
The synonym used for 'factor' - 'steward' seems far too obscure to me.
The use of 'empty-headed', which is intended to mean 'with no head' - but doesn't it signify 'nothing inside the head of'?
I'll grant that taken singly any of the
above would probably be acceptable. But all three in the same clue ...?
To me, it's a case of sacrificing fairness for good surface reading. It
can't be solved 'cold' and 'back-solving' it from the answer just made
|Example clue published Feb '04:|
|Change around, alien to
Ireland (South), to encourage advance of professional (10,7)
Ans. VETERINARY SURGEON - wordplay, I think, is V(ET + ERIN)ARY + S + URGE ON
[VARY=change, ET=alien, ERIN=Ireland, S(outh) URGE ON=encourage advance.]
'Professional' is too loose a definition: something like 'practitioner' (or even 'beastly practitioner', despite the groan factor) would have been more helpful without giving away too much.
As to the word play, it has five elements. Even if 'vary' was guessed at,* there's the problem of finding which of the other cryptic elements it encloses. This is compounded by not knowing, at the solving stage, where the definition begins: this could be at 'encourage', 'advance' or 'professional'. All part of the setter's armoury of tricks, of course - normally - but I felt it was just unfair given the inadequate definition.
* (I wasted much time considering an anag. of 'change', or the reversal of a synonym for 'change')
It's not that all this complexity is
there to give a good surface reading (which makes little sense and
doesn't even conjure up an image, however surreal). In a nutshell, I
don't like this because it's asking the solver to cope with too many
subsidiary (cryptic) elements given the inadequate definition. Such a
clue, I'd say, can be "solved" only after the answer is
known/guessed at (in my case, when all the crossing letters were in
place). At the time, I couldn't be bothered to untangle the setter's
word play; It's only for the purposes of this feature that I've
retrospectively worked through the clue. For me - and I suspect quite a
few other dissatisfied solvers - the setter might just as well have
clued it as "Professional (10, 7)"!
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