Why Are Crossword Puzzles Symmetrical?

Obligatory link to column

The excellent crossword-puzzle documentary Wordplay (2006) goes into that a little. We have it on DVD, but without having to go dig it out, I’m remembering it interviews a crossword-puzzle-master lady who interned under one of the pioneers, who also decreed there could be no isolated areas, no little “word islands” completely cut off from the rest of the puzzle.

The movie also has Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Jon Stewart talking about their love of solving these puzzles. Talks to Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword since the early 1990s and who has a university degree in games. Quite an informative little film.

Norwegian crossword puzzles come in many varieties and are often rectangular rather than square and rarely symmetrical. http://www.kryssord.no/

And the same for Swedish crosswords. Symmetric ones are rare exceptions.

That lady is the blessed Margaret Farrar. First crossword editor of the Times when they finally chose to have a crossword.

If you’ve done very early puzzles, you will see why the rules exist. It is very frustrating to find non-checked letters. The prohibition of islands is to let the solver flow from one part of a puzzle to the other.

Not all puzzles are symmetric. Diagramless puzzles frequently are constructed to make a picture (like a tree) and are thus not symmetric. When the Times runs them they state if they are symmetric or not.

Are they in the American style with clues listed separately, or the European style (Spanish and French, at least) where the clues are put in the black spaces in the grids? Games magazine publishes some crosswords in that style also; I’ll have to check but I don’t think they are usually symmetric.

English cryptic puzzles are symmetric, but have unchecked letters in each word in order to force you to solve every single one. In regular puzzles if you solve every across clue you don’t even have to look at the down clues.

Ah, just as I thought.

Two letter answers are also forbidden by modern crossword rules.

What is an unchecked letter?

A letter that only appears in one word, either going left-to-right or top-to-bottom.

Cryptic puzzles and puzzles with the clues listed separately are less common (particularly cryptic puzzles, which I’ve only seen in recent years) but they’re not symmetric either. I just linked to the front page for an example, and the site is mainly a pay site, but here’s a free example with the clues outside and no symmetry:


Rules? What rules laid forth by whom?

In Sweden there are two schools of crossword construction. One camp says a crossword must be one continuous surface (my preference) while the other allows them to be divided into unrelated parts.

Otherwise: What Naita said.

Well, “conventions.” In a typical American crossword, words must be at least three letters, the grid is an odd-number x odd-number square, one letter to a square, and there is diagonal symmetry. Every letter in every square must be part of both an across and down clue, something that is absent from almost all European puzzles I’ve seen (I suspect this mostly has to do with how well a particular language lends itself to such a construction.)

Occasionally, puzzles will play with these conventions, but that’s what’s typical, if not “standard.” For example, the “one letter to a square” rule is followed by almost all major newspaper crosswords, but the occasional Thursday New York Times crossword will have what they call a “rebus” theme, where a pictograph or numeral or just plain multiple letters will appear in a a single box as part of an answer. This can be quite frustrating if you don’t know to look out for it.

Swedish crossword makers wouldn’t survive if they were not allowed to use two letter words. They do their best not to, but sometimes they paint themselves into a corner and have to do it anyway. The rivers Ob and Po are very popular, not to mention mites (or in Swedish).

Yeah, English seems to be particularly flexible for crosswords. This is pretty much as generic an American grid you’ll see. Note even there the relative lack of three-letter words. Some are downright impressive in how they can layer several 11-letter words on top of each other, and created as many words going in the other direction. (And also impressive how all those are pretty much common words or sayings–very little, if any, “crosswordese” involved.)

The rules are set by the better puzzle editors, ones for the major papers and Games magazine, for instance. As mentioned they go back a long time. I had a copy of the “World’s Largest Crossword Puzzle” which folded out to a size about 8 inches tall and a few feet wide. I think it was all one piece, but it had plenty of two letter answers and unchecked letters. It was also terribly boring to do.

I’m giving the English rules without implying that puzzles in other languages should follow them. I don’t know about Swedish, but in Spanish there are many fewer choices for words ending in non-vowels than in English. I suspect English/American style grids are not going to work very well there. Setting a puzzle with our constraints would be a lot harder, and you would have even more crosswordese (words which show up more often in puzzles than in real life) than we have here.

I’m doing a book of Times puzzles with tricks or otherwise amusing components. One of them is the record holder for fewest clues for a 15 x 15 puzzle - 54, IIRC. Pretty impressive.

Some years ago the first computer generated puzzles, which were distributed by the lower class syndicates for college papers, had two letter clues. I suspect the software got more sophisticated with time.

And of course, one of the most famous and clever puzzles, which centered around the 1996 election:


To summarize: The theme of the puzzle was the election. There was one across clue which was to be filled with tomorrow’s election winner. Either BOBDOLE or CLINTON. This would join up with the other theme clues to form the sentence: “PROGNOSTICATION __________ ELECTED PRESIDENT.”

Regardless of who you put in the space, all the down clues worked with both names, except instead of “BAT” you would get “CAT” (clue: Black Halloween animal.) Instead of “OUI” you’d get “LUI” (clue: French 101 word), and so on. Supremely clever. So much so that some solvers wrote in, accusing the New York Times of being presumptuous of Clinton winning the election or just plain wrong with a Bob Dole prediction, not noticing that either name would work with the puzzle with all the answers.

Really, really smart puzzle.

I remember one decades ago that had answers like πlot, πrate, oπum, etc.

In the NYT Sunday crossword too. The crossword for 1/30/11 contains the signs of the Chinese Zodiac as one-word-to-a-square elements of the “big clue” answers. EG, “red [rooster]” in four squares.

While we are on the subject of fun clues, the Games/Merriam Webster Crossword Competition I went to had audio clues . One was someone singing
“Old McDonald had a farm” and then stopped - the answer was EIEIO

Another had heavy breathing. The answer was Darth Vader.

Farrar’s impetus for that was that symmetrical puzzles look better on the magazine page.