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Crossword puzzle rules are puzzling

  • December 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Creating a crossword puzzle involves more than just knowing a lot of words. Constructors also need to know an elaborate set of rules.

“Some of my early puzzles were sent back because I wasn’t following the rules,” said Victor Barocas, a University of Minnesota professor and veteran puzzle creator. “I had to learn them by trial and error.”

The rules include:

Size. The grid for a daily puzzle is 15 squares by 15 squares, while a Sunday puzzle is 21 by 21. “You can break that rule, but you need to have a really, really good reason,” said George Barany, one of Barocas’ fellow puzzle constructors and university professors.

Word count. A daily puzzle can contain no more than 78 words and no more than 38 blacked-out spaces. The limits on a Sunday puzzle are 140 words and 74 blacked-out squares.

Pattern. The black squares must be arranged in a symmetrical pattern. In the United States, all the letters must be “checked,” puzzle jargon meaning that they have to fit into two interlocking words. In England, stand-alone letters are allowed.

Difficulty. The puzzles get progressively harder as the week goes on, with Monday being the easiest and Saturday the most difficult. The Sunday puzzle gets its difficulty factor from its larger size; the content is aimed at a Thursday level.

Crosswordese. This is the term for words that exist almost exclusively in puzzles. They are frowned on but tolerated if there’s no other alternative. “ ‘Esne’ is an example of crosswordese,” explained Will Shortz, puzzle editor for the New York Times. “If you do crossword puzzles, you’ve probably encountered it. It’s an Anglo-Saxon slave. You can read widely in many different sources your entire life and not find the word ‘esne.’ ”

Repetition. The same word should not appear twice in a puzzle, even if there are different clues.

Phrases. Multiple-word answers are acceptable, Shortz said, if the words form a commonly used phrase and aren’t just slapped together for convenience. “Blue moon” would pass this test; “blue car” would not.

Banned words. Two-letter words are a no-no in U.S. puzzles, and no mainstream publication will accept X-rated words. But beyond that, editors have individual policies. Barany got the puzzle that’s in the current issue of Minnesota magazine sent back to him to be reworked because it included the term “G-spot.”

“The New York Times has used G-spot,” he said resignedly, adding that the Times has some unusual restrictions of its own. It won’t allow the birth control abbreviation IUD, but it will accept the homemade bomb designation IED.

“I call it the ‘make war, not love policy,’ ” he said.

Jeff Strickler

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