UberXim – is it worth it?   11 comments

The Azed Slip isn’t something I contribute to, although in the past there has been the occasional temptation. I also don’t have a problem with the strict Ximenean principles applied to submissions – but I do think that sometimes it goes too far.

Some message board commenters have called into question the validity of the following clues, which many have recorded as among the best ever written:

Bust down reason? (9) Answer: BRAINWASH

Put criminal into custody (7) Answer: CAPTURE

The ‘argument’ centres on the use of transitive/intransitive verbs and I’m sure that expert linguists will point out that the clues suffer from small technical inaccuracies. But is that really the point?

Cryptic clue-writing is a creative process but the end result isn’t supposed to be artistic perfection; the most popular setters will tell you all they’re after is providing fun for the solver, and the pursuit of that will often involve the taking of small risks and liberties.

How many of the greatest clues would be consigned to trash if we stuck absolutely rigidly to the minutiae of grammar and syntax? How much enjoyment would be lost?

I’m not saying that strict linguistic adherence would eliminate great, guffaw-inducing clues. They would still be written – but there would be far fewer of them. If setters sat back from every clue they wrote and tried to pick tiny holes in their grammatical construction, the amount of effort would be enormous. And frankly we don’t get paid enough!

The crosswords in your daily cryptic must be open to adventurous clues where the emphasis is on how much pleasure the solving process will provide. Any effort to instil grammatical perfection will reduce the amount of fun and thus the number of (especially new) solvers who want to experience the amazing fun that can be had with our beautifully unique language.


Posted April 19, 2011 by Anax in Uncategorized

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11 responses to “UberXim – is it worth it?

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  1. Mate, you said it. We wouldn’t see one puzzle a day if you all had to contemplate the navel in such a fashion. Regarding those two examples, I think they are both top drawer.
    They score on the same level as ‘Bar of soap (6,6)’ and they deliver what is required to the solver.

    • Talking of which, I’d love to know when ‘Bar of soap’ first appeared. It’s credited originally to Rufus but it’s one I wrote for a Birmingham Post crozzer in about 1985/6 when Rufus was my editor. He didn’t say at the time it was one he’d written/seen before, although in retrospect I can’t imagine he’d feel obliged to say so.
      At least I take some comfort from knowing I came up with it independently!

  2. I would agree that we would not want excellent clues to be dismissed because they have a technical flaw… but the fact that they are very enjoyable clues does not change the fact that they are flawed. A slightly flawed laugh-out-loud clue would still be bettered by a technically perfect one – what’s wrong with that?

    So although it is a bit churlish to point out tiny technicalities in an otherwise brilliant clue, I think it is still fair game (so long as it is not taken to mean that such a clue should not have been published).

  3. I’ll race you to be the last to get a clue in the slip!

  4. I think of it the same way as paintings. A surprising number of great paintings have technical flaws – there’s an extra leg in a Breughel, nearly none of the heads fit properly on the bodies in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, there’s a famous one of a flautist where the chin is all wrong and so on and so on.

    Most people don’t notice the flaws – and if they’re brought to their attention, it spoils the overall impact of the painting. And if you approach a painting looking for flaws then you are doing it wrong.

    Vermeer didn’t make this sort of mistake, but then Vermeer was whatever the opposite of prolific is – he’d certainly never have been able to knock one off like clockwork for a daily newspaper.

    So really, if you’re going to want to enjoy lots of paintings you have to put up with some flaws. Same goes for clues.

  5. Actually, for once I disagree with phisheep because the technical soundness of a clue is a necessary part of making it fair to solve. You appreciate a clue in two ways – for the wit of the surface when you read it and the elegance of the wordplay when you solve it… and a technical flaw might detract from the solving part.
    Having said that I am not sophisticated enough to understand the flaws in the clues Anax quoted so I think they are just wonderful!

  6. I actually quite like Phisheep’s analogy. Regarding fairness, there are a good number of clues with ‘technical flaws’ that are still fair to the solver for other reasons. I think one needs to consider the severity of the flaw – I don’t really like using these terms for what might be minor niggles that an absolute Xim-Nazi might pick up but others might easily shrug off (or , more likely for the majority, not even notice!)

  7. I agree that a technically unsound clue should be called into question; taking liberties to create a LOL clue is fine so long as the result remains fair to the solver. What I don’t agree with is a clue being declared unsound because of a technicality which only a highly experienced linguist (as opposed to a crossword fan) could pick up on.

  8. As I think I said before somewhere, there’s a difference between Ximenean and fairness, but some uber-Xims seem to conflate the two. A clue isn’t necessarily fair just because of its (however perfect) construction and it isn’t necessarily unfair if the construction has nitpicky linguistic flaws. All sorts of other things go into fairness including vocabulary, general knowledge, occasionally grammatical nuances, local idiom, who the target solving audience is and so on.

    So far as I can tell, criticisms of the two example clues would ride on whether they should read, for the wordplay …

    Bust down reason(ing) (9)
    Put criminal(ly) into custody (7)

    … either of which spoils the surface and, because they are &lits, the definition.

    I can see that this might cause a bit of trouble if they are seen as standalone clues. But in any real crossword at some stage you’ll get some checking letters which will help and in that context they would work just fine for me.

    To take another analogy, it’s like chess problems. A chess problem has to be very carefully constructed and nitpicked all the way through, and it is almost entirely unlike any real game of chess, or at least unlike any game of chess that I play. I feel that the purist uber-Xim approach is just fine for standalone clues treated as an art form in themselves, because part of the art form is getting the construction just so. But in any real crossword, it is going too far to insist on that level of scrutiny at the expense of the fun of solving which, after all, is why most of us do the crossword stuff in the first place.

    So far as something like DIY COW goes, I try to think of how I’d see the clues in the context of a real crossword rather than as a standalone puzzle. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a clue to fall to solution at first reading, but I would expect to be able to work out why the answer is what it is after I’d got it with the help of a few checking letters and to appreciate the clue then.

    So really, like everything else, it is a matter of context. No problem with the uber-Xims so long as they don’t impede too much on the rest of us (and I expect that an evangelical uber-Xim appointed to edit on a national daily might have a rather short tenure!).

  9. The only Ximenean rule I accept as hard and fast is his well-known adage: “I might not mean what I say but I must say what I mean”.
    Now, in contention for the world’s best ever cryptic clue, see 1ac and 7ac here:


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