The Dreaded Crossword Puzzle

Because everyone loves a good before and after shot.

Crosswords are very intimidating – I get it. This is common thinking for everyone before they get addicted themselves.

I first started doing crosswords my junior/senior year of college when I was trying to keep myself entertained during class (Marketing 3000 did not have the most engaging professor). I had already knocked out the Sudoku in the student paper and the only thing left was the empty grid that was just begging to be played with. I surprised myself at how many words I was able to guess correctly, all while being depressed at how many I didn’t. The advantage was that I could only go up from there and what they say is true, practice makes perfect.

If you do enough crosswords, you’ll start recognizing patterns and remembering common words. That’s why I want this post to be a challenge for you to take a stab at a one and stick with it for at least a week. Not only will you eventually grow to love them, you’ll increase your vocabulary and ward off dementia in your old age. Look it up.

The first step is to find a source of crosswords. I’m lucky enough that the Red Eye paper offers one  each morning that I do on the way to work but there are plenty of online resources for you to find good ones like USAToday.com or LATimes.com. Keep in mind that crosswords get harder as the week progresses so if you find yourself knowing fewer words on Friday compared to Monday, that’s normal.

What no one explained to me before I started out is that there are a set of rules that every crossword follows. It’s not a free-for-all like I originally thought. The most common are:

  • Singular and plural: If the clue is plural, odds are there will be an S at the end of the answer. For example, “swamp plants” is usually “reeds.” It’s the same with “and” and “or” as “Nat King and Natalie” would result in “Coles” versus “Hanks or Hardy” would be “Tom” with no S. Simple right?
  • Tenses: If the clue is a verb in the past tense, the answer will usually be in the past tense as well. For example, “kept for later” would be “saved” while “keep for later” would be “save.”
  • Abbreviations: This is very similar to the first two rules. If the clue has an abbreviation in it, so will the answer. A common one is “J. Edgar Hoover’s agcy.,” which means the answer is “FBI” not “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
  • Perhaps, for one, e.g.: All of these words indicate that the clue is just an example of an overarching category just like the answer for “Sprite, for one” could be “soda” or “pop.” No, we’re not going to dive into that debate in this post …
  • Most clues are synonyms for the answer: In reality, very few puzzle answers require any historical or pop culture knowledge. All you need is some common sense and a grasp of the english language. For example, “destroy slowly” is another way to say “erode” or “at a distance” also means “afar.”

Are you still with me? Good because now comes the concrete advice on how to solve crosswords:

  • Use a pencil: I actually only ever use a pen because I like to live on the edge but in reality you should use something that you can erase. You will mess up, especially in the beginning, so it’s important to be able to fix the word you originally inscribed.
  • Think outside the box: A common word can have many different meanings. Examples that come to mind are words that can serve as nouns as well as verbs. For example, “air” could mean “broadcast,” “atmosphere, “breath” etc.
  • Solve across and down at the same time: It’s exciting when you get the word correctly but before jumping the gun and writing it down, double check that it’s right. The easiest way to do this is to figure out the words that intersect it. If the letters line up, odds are you’re on the right track.
  • Always check the answers: This can be super annoying sometimes, especially if you’re not online or impatient like me, since you have to wait until the next day to know if you’re right. Trust me, this is the only way you’ll learn even if there are a few “duh” moments. The main purpose is to identify patterns and commonly used words to keep an eye out for next time.

I know that this is a lot to keep track of but believe me, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. On that note, let’s try it! I’m using the USA Today crossword from last Monday, since we determined that the beginning of the week is easiest. I pulled out some of the clues below since the answers to them are some of the most common crossword words:

  • Nile vipers = Asps. Notice how the clue and the answer are both plural. See, we’re already applying our rules! Also, another clue for asp is “Cleopatra’s snake.”
  • Nabisco item = Oreo. This is the crossword puzzle’s favorite cookie. And by that, I mean the ONLY cookie. An alternative clue for this is “cookie sandwich.”
  • Instrument with a double reed mouthpiece = Oboe. If Oreo is the crossword’s cookie, oboe is its instrument.
  • Omen = Sign. This is an example of the synonyms. One thing you should note is that “omen” is usually the answer, not the clue.
  • Wrap for a rani = Sari. The clue could have also been “Indian wrap.”
  • Home to future ham = sty. I don’t know why crossword creators love this word so much but it’s a staple. Another clue for it could be “pig dwelling.”

Before I leave you to try for yourself, I thought I would add all of the usual suspects that I can quickly come up with below. Think of it as a cheat sheet:

  • Ace – expert, pro, highest card
  • Ewe – lamb’s mother, ram’s mate
  • Ale – stein contents, pub order
  • Lea – valley (this was a new one for me)
  • Tee – the shirt kind and the golf kind
  • Ado – “Much ___ about nothing,” riot
  • Din – noise, ruckus
  • Iota – small amount
  • Abet – aide in criminal activity (who knew, right?)

Finally some common categories that you’ll encounter:

  • Celebrities: Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Fey, Adam Sandler
  • Biblical references: Ark, Adam, Eve, Eden, Cain, Abel, Noah, Moses
  • Months (abbreviated and not abbreviated): Feb., April, Dec., Oct. are used the most
  • Birthstones: opal in particular is very popular, also referred to as a gem

I know this post got very wordy and long but I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I knew nothing of this when I first started. These are all things that I’ve picked up along the way and that you can too if you practice and challenge yourself. Not only will you come out feeling very smart, nothing can get in your way when you’ve completed a puzzle at the beginning of the day.

Have you tried doing crossword puzzles before? What are some of the challenges you’ve run into?

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