Capital Losses

It is generally considered unacceptable for a setter to arbitrarily remove a capital letter which is required by the cryptic reading of a clue. So ‘Take one around nice course’ for RUN is no good, since ‘nice’ has to be ‘Nice’ for the wordplay (R + UN) to work. So how about ‘Pass river, one in Nice’, also for RUN? Superficially, that looks ok. But a check in Chambers tells us that R is an abbreviation for ‘River’ (with a capital letter), but not ‘river’.

We could ask ourselves “Is the abbreviation ever used in real life to indicate the complete word without the initial capital?” In this instance (for ‘R=river’) the answer seems to me a definite “No” – the abbreviation is only seen in the names of specific rivers (typically on maps) as eg ‘R. Thames’, and is never used generically. So saying ‘river’ when you mean ‘River’ is really no different to saying ‘nice’ when you mean ‘Nice’, and presumably shouldn’t be allowed.

Apart from ‘river’, such a prohibition would rule out several old favourites lacking an initial capital: ‘street’, ‘road’ and ‘lake’ from the ‘geographical’ group, as well as ‘society’ (for ‘S’) and ‘king’ (for ‘R’, though not for ‘K’, which is  an abbreviation for ‘king’ in the context of chess or cards).

Knowing this, would I use, say, ‘river’ for R in a clue? Well, since I suspect that there isn’t a single solver out there who would bat an eyelid, I certainly wouldn’t reject a good clue purely to avoid it. I think it’s fair to say that some wordplay elements are so well established that it makes no sense to unilaterally boycott them, but this does show that even at a general level there is on occasion a lack of consistency when it comes to what is deemed allowable and what is not.

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3 Responses

  1. Doctor Clue says:

    To complicate matters, different dictionaries offer their own variations on some of the abbreviations in Chambers, eg the online Collins gives ‘L.’ or ‘l.’ for ‘lake’ (no capital).

    I can’t help feeling that any setter who complains about ‘liberal’ for L needs to be very sure that they haven’t in the past done something similar with kings or roads themselves! There are some elements seen in cryptic clues that may not be objectively valid but which are universally accepted by solvers – I’m all in favour of the status quo being preserved.

  2. Crossguesser says:

    I must admit the issue had never occurred to me with R for river*, let alone Rex/Regina, but I see your point.
    Your post has reminded me of a kerfuffle on the bigdave blog a year or two ago where a commenter (a setter himself, I think, but not for the Telegraph) objected to a Telegraph clue that used lower-case adjective ‘liberal’ to indicate L.
    He was technically correct, but there was a bit of ‘It’s just a crossword, get over yourself’ in the replies.

    * ‘R for river’ sounds like an East Ender talking about a famous feature in Tasmania 😒

  3. Dr Daniel Price (Saint Vincent) says:

    While not a complete libertarian (Libertarian?), I tend to argue in–perhaps self-serving–ways that allow for usage of ‘river’ and ‘king’ for ‘R’, street for ‘ST’, and so on. We setters are expected to be ever more clever and inventive in disguising wordplay; any reduction of the arsenal (Arsenal?) makes the demand impossible to satisfy. I should note that I compose cryptics for inclusion in collections, and feel obligated to avoid repetition of any device across a set, and even across a superset.

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