The Rule of Two by David Astle

Noah knew the importance of two, as did Torvill and Dean. Same goes for Cupid and anyone craving that elusive sock. Couples count, and not just for tangoing, but cryptic crosswords too. The secret in fact to solving the ‘other language’ of cryptics is embraced by The Rule Of Two. If you want to unravel a cryptic clue, then it’s time to get binary.

At the drawing board, setters will dabble with a dozen recipes. If I want to clue a word like BINARY, I may consider BRAINY (an anagram), or RAIN splashed inside BY (a sandwich clue), or RANI (a rajah’s wife) reversed in BY, or even BI + NARY (a charade clue). Doodling, these are just four formulas to consider. But whatever tack the setter chooses, his or her clue must obey the Rule of Two.

As you’d expect, the Rule of Two has two clauses. The first relates to how a clue is built. That is, almost all clues contain two elements: the wordplay and the definition. Leaving BINARY alone, consider a clue like Steal greeting card (6). Going by the Rule of Two – Clause 1 – we need to break the clue into two pieces – but which two?

Either ‘steal’ is the answer’s definition, or ‘steal greeting’. And since the latter sounds daft, we should rummage our vocab for a six-letter synonym of steal. PILFER? FINGER? What about SNITCH? Bear in mind, a Quick clue demands nothing else. Steal – the word – is all you get. Cryptics, on the other hand, offer two bites.

Warming to steal as your definition, you’ll now suspect ‘greeting card’ as the wordplay. Does the phrase suggest any of our listed synonyms? Not so far. But wait. A form of greeting is HI. Shuffle your mental deck and you’ll come across JACK. (Is that your card?) To steal is to hijack, and hi-jack equals greeting + card: a charade clue. Better still, you know the answer’s correct as the clue itself confirms it, pointing to the answer from two different angles.

Which leads us to Clause 2, namely a clue’s dual messages. On paper, a clue must own a surface sense, where the whole conjures clarity, while a secondary meaning – the clue’s mechanics – needs to lie below. I’ll bet $2 that most non-cryptic solvers took our greeting-card example literally. What? You want me to rip off Hallmark – why? Besides, stealing is illegal, and I have the right change.

Change, indeed. To hijack any puzzle, change is vital to the non-cryptic outlook. New solvers must convert their brainy into binary, to think lateral over literal, and heed the Rule of Two. Though a warning before you enter this cryptic addiction: think twice.

David Astle is a cruciverbalist and author of Puzzled: Secrets And Clues From A Life Lost In Words.