Recent comments on this blog regarding &lits (…and literally) has made me think a little deeper about cryptic crossword concepts and the difference between a solver’s mindset and a setter’s mindset. It’s also reminded me that I really do need to get back to separating past solutions from their included Insights so I can create an index of cryptic knowledge for old and new solvers alike.
&lits have been covered a number of times in the past, but, as the topic keeps coming up, and some solvers still have trouble with identifying them with certainty, I thought I’d explore what’s going on with more depth.
Greg summarised it well here.
There is no grey area, that is, if the clue doesn’t satisfy both requirements, it’s not an &lit. If one part doesn’t resolve properly or the definition can’t stand by itself, it’s not an &lit. So, that’s the test: if the whole clue would be acceptable in a quick crossword as a definition, then that part is Ok; if the whole clue would be acceptable as the wordplay part of a standard cryptic clue (with nothing left over), then that part is Ok. Tick both boxes, and you have an &lit clue. So where does the problem with identifying them come?
A setter’s job is to join the definition and wordplay parts of a clue as seamlessly as possible, that is, he/she tries to combine both parts by using language that links them. That’s the essence of a good clue: if this isn’t done, a clue will appear to be in two parts, and its cryptic worth is much reduced. It stands to reason, then, that if this is done well, every clue potentially has an &lit bent as the whole final clue (both definition and wordplay) will have an association with the answer. It also makes sense that a solver may mistake a clue for being an &lit if they don’t sit back and methodically apply the test above. Mere association of the whole clue and the answer isn’t enough to make it an &lit, it just makes it a well-written clue.
It is true that an extended form of the &lit, the “semi-&lit”, has made its way into the cryptic crossword vocabulary, which is a clue that has perfect wordplay which just falls short of also doubling as a definition. To make it work, extra is added to the definition at one end. While this type of clue seems to generate kudos, it’s hard to explain to people new to cryptics as it doesn’t fit either the traditional definition/wordplay format or the &lit format. I think the “semi-&lit” term was made up by setters to give themselves some wriggle room.
Now, there can be problems when the setter “tries” to create an &lit but falls short by stretching a definition or including a contrived component in the wordplay that fits with the definition part, but doesn’t quite work in the wordplay part. Here’s a good example of this from a published crossword: Root primarily for a meal (6) The answer is (R)oot + A + DISH, giving RADISH, however the “for” plays no role in the wordplay part of the answer, and the entire clue as a definition doesn’t quite work either. It’s not a “semi-&lit”, so it’s a faulty clue. If a setter can’t get it right, then what is the solver going to make of it? Usually the solver will find the answer anyway, and mark it down as a near miss &lit clue, except of course, as you know now, there’s no such thing.