Cryptic crosswords for beginners: one to a hundred – when clues use the % sign

<span>Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP</span>
Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

In the example clues below, I explain the two parts of each one: there is a definition of the answer and there is some wordplay – a recipe for assembling its letters. In a genuine puzzle environment, of course, you also have the crossing letters, which hugely alleviate your solving load. Hence “crossword”. Also, the setters’ names tend to link to profiles of the individuals behind the pseudonyms.

The essential idea

Solving crosswords entails a lot of finding words and chopping them up. Sometimes, setters are considerate enough to tell you precisely how much to chop.

Here’s an example, from heart surgeon and crossword compiler Philistine:

24a Take pies or cake – all 50% starch (7)

Philistine hopes we will take the first halves of the words “Take pies or cake”, giving us TA + PI + O + CA: TAPIOCA, defined by the rest of the clue (“starch”).

Is it always to be the first half of some word? It is not. Here’s sometime academic and bookseller Arachne:

11d Strongly recommend 50% reduction in your wage (4)

This time, we remove the first halves of YOUR and WAGE, leaving UR + GE: URGE (“strongly recommend”).

In fact, if it might look insultingly easy to give us the word we’re to chop, we might get another that means the same thing. Here’s Qaos, who’s a mathematician and quite fond of a “%” in a clue:

25d For a long time, salaries drop 20% (4)

We take “salaries”, replace it with a word we happen to have mentioned in the previous clues (WAGES) and lose 20% for AGES (“a long time”).

But it’s not always that simple …

Adding or removing the x% may not give us the whole answer. So here’s Picaroon (a novelist among other things):

17d Better country with 20% less stock (7)

Before any chopping, we swap “better” for a synonym (CAP). Next, we’ll take a five-letter country name down to four. We don’t have to work our way through 24 names: we might use crossing letters, we might imagine a country most of whose name might follow CAP to make a word – or we might work backwards by thinking of a CAP____ word which means “stock”.

However we get there, we lop ITALY’s Y and stick the remainder on CAP for CAPITAL.

And setters, more often than not, use more than one of the devices we’ve been looking at in the same clue. First, let’s have the top banana among devices. When the mysterious Puck give us this …

19a Airline allegedly a little under 50% at fault (2,2)

… we take the first four letters (“a little under 50%”) of ALLEGEDLY, then jumble them (“at fault”) for our airline, EL AL.

Next, here’s Qaos again:

15a As written, all the world is 80% male? (4)

First, we decipher the theatrical reference (“all the world’s a stage”) and retain the first 80% of STAGE for STAG (“male”).

… and sometimes, it’s something else

A percent sign is a versatile little collection of marks. It might indicate the letters PC, as listed in all good dictionaries. It might be doing a job similar to but not the same as the above. In the remaining three examples, the reminder that the actual solver will already have some crossing letters applies double.

First, here’s mathematical educationist Brendan:

11a Knave sharing 25% with top man in his hostile takeovers (10)

This time, we’re using the container device: “in his” tells us we’ll be putting something inside the letters HIS. What is that something? Well, we paraphrase “knave” for JACK and “top man” for KING. And since we’re told they share 25%, that something is not JACKKING but JACKING. Inside HIS, we get our “hostile takeovers”: HIJACKINGS.

Our penultimate clue is from the author of Chambers Crossword Manual, Pasquale:

20d Exhausted, only 10% there at the end in capacity (6)

We start with BUSHED (“exhausted”), treat the D as a Roman numeral (more on those here), cut the 500 (D) down to 10% of its value (L) and we have our measure of “capacity”: BUSHEL.

Finally, retired programmer Nutmeg pulls off the sneakiest of tricks in meaning pretty much exactly what she says:

14a Formerly arm 25% of workforce? (12)

A QUARTERSTAFF is an old weapon (and the answer); the STAFF we get from “workforce” – and the rest? Sometimes a “25%” is just a QUARTER.

Seasoned solvers: any favourite examples? Beginners: any questions?

More guidance

Cryptic devices: hidden answers; double definitions; cryptic definitions; soundalikes; initial letters; spoonerisms; containers; reversals; alternate letters; cycling; stammering; taking most of a word; naked words; first and last letters; middle letters; removing middle letters; defining by example.

Bits and bobs: Roman numerals; Nato alphabet; Greek letters; chemistry; abbreviations for countries; points of the compass; more points of the compass; playing cards; capital letters; boys and girls; apostrophes; cricket; alcohol; the church; politics; Latin; royals; newspapers; doctors; drugs; music; animals; cars; cities; rivers; boats; when the setter’s name appears; when the solver appears; “cheating”.

Individual letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N.

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be obtained from the Guardian bookshop.