Q&A – Definitions by Example

Hello Dr Clue.

My query relates to the established convention that ‘the general may define the specific, but not vice-versa’. So, eg, we might have ‘lake’ (a D) in a clue for ARTERIES but would need ‘Como, say’ (a DbyE) in a clue for CORNFLAKES. That’s all tickety-boo.

Now let’s consider one possible breakdown {SIN in BAG} of BASING. By the above convention, this admits the possible WP “Lust, perhaps, in sack”. Again, all fine and dandy. However, what of the alternative breakdown {(A SIN) in BG}. If we were to use the WP “Lust in extremely big”, would that constitute foul play; and, if so, on what logical grounds? The query emerges since it seems reasonable to view ‘lust’ as ‘A SIN’ without violating the convention. To wit, what would be the argument against treating the article as a ‘de-generaliser’ in what I’d venture to call an ‘EbyD’.


Hello Monk

A very good question, to which I’ll do my best to give a half-decent answer. Incidentally, when discussing definitions by example, I am reminded of Nuala Considine’s clue from a  (cryptic) ‘Stinker’ crossword in a Weekend magazine from the late 1960s, “Crown and sceptre (5)”, to which the answers was NOUNS.

I reckon your lakes are a good starting place. COMO is not itself a lake, it is the name of a particular lake, so I believe a ‘frinstance flag’, such as ‘eg’, ‘say’ or ‘?’, is essential when it is used to indicate LAKE, and this rule would typically apply wherever a common noun is indicated by the proper name of one such. I think that LUST is slightly different, in that we are dealing with two abstract nouns and a subjective judgment – not everyone would agree that lust is a sin, although few could deny that Como is the name of a lake. On the face of it, LUST for SIN is no different to (say) AMIABILITY for VIRTUE, and I don’t believe that ‘amiability, perhaps’ could legitimately define VIRTUE in a clue. However, the key here is that lust is not just any old sin, like failing to have a TV licence, it’s one of the seven deadly sins, and that association transcends any moral judgment. So ‘lust, perhaps’ is surely ok for SIN; similarly (in my view) the saying ‘patience is a virtue’ legitimizes ‘patience, perhaps’ for VIRTUE.

I’m not convinced that the ‘de-generaliser’ makes a material difference; when ‘dog’ on its own appears as a definition for COLLIE, we have to infer the indefinite article in the definition, and if the clue is “Hound (3)”, we enter DOG, but what we really mean is A DOG. I wouldn’t feel that ‘Como’ without a frinstance flag is any better for A LAKE than for LAKE, and because the indefinite article is usually ignored, it places a greater strain on the solver.

When it comes to SIN, the first question, I think, is whether a member of a small, bounded set (deadly sins, signs of the zodiac) whose constituents should be well known to solvers can be treated differently to a member of an effectively unbounded set (lakes, fish, cars etc). In my view, the answer is ‘possibly’, and you could perhaps make an argument for ‘lust’ on its own indicating SIN, or ‘Leo’ leading to HOUSE. The second question is whether a countable noun (eg SIN) that is indicated by an uncountable one (eg LUST in this context) should be prefixed in the result by A/AN. The answer may technically be ‘yes’, but the situation is rare, and I feel it could be asking too much of the solver without any kind of signpost.

In summary: I think that ‘lust’ alone for SIN is decidedly questionable, and while I acknowledge that A HOUND is A DOG but LUST is A SIN, I don’t feel that it is any more appropriate for A SIN. However, I would be very sympathetic towards something that explicitly suggests the presence of an article, such as “Relaxing, say, having grasped what lust is?” for EASING [EG around (A SIN)]. But that’s just my personal view.

Dr C

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5 Responses

  1. Coot says:

    Very useful analysis, thanks. There was a related discussion on MyCrossword recently. I suggested the need for a DBE indicator where “Wilder” was being used to indicate “Gene” on precisely the grounds you have set out, i.e. Wilder is an example of a Gene (Hackman being a further example). The retort was that actually Gene was an example of a Wilder (Billy being another). I didn’t have a good response! What would you say to that?

    • Doctor Clue says:

      I’d say to them “Yes, but what’s your point?”, or words to that effect. Both ‘Gene’ and ‘Wilder’ would be definitions by example of each other and would need to be flagged as such.

      When considering potential DBEs, I think it helps to look at the solution and ask whether it answers the definition. Is a collie a dog? Yes, so ‘dog’ works for COLLIE. Is a dog a collie? No, it’s a class of animal, one example of which is a collie, so ‘collie’ doesn’t work for DOG. ‘Collie’ belongs to the set of ‘types of dog’.

      Similarly, ‘Edward Lear’ on its own is inadequate as a definition of POET, but both ‘poet’ and ‘artist’ would be ok for EDWARD LEAR; this is because he belongs to both the set of ‘famous poets’ and the set of ‘famous artists’.

      He also belongs to two further sets, ‘famous people with the forename Edward’ and ‘famous people with the surname Lear’. EDWARD is not ‘a Lear’ (there is no such thing), and LEAR is not ‘an Edward’. So when we ‘fix’ his forename, Edward, in a clue, we are telling solvers to delve into the former set to find a surname, and when we fix his surname we are telling them to explore the latter set. In each instance, the solver must search based on our example, so we must give them ‘Edward, perhaps’ or ‘Lear, say’. They might have to consider other sets as well, such as ‘Shakespearean characters’, or even (though opinions would vary on this one) ‘types of aeroplane’.

      But (you might ask) if there is no such thing as an ‘Edward’ or a ‘Lear’, how can they be examples of anything? This is the sort of question we occasionally have to gloss over, otherwise crosswords would be very dull things indeed.

      There is, of course, a whole different discussion to be had about what makes someone sufficiently famous to be recognised from one name, and whether a name like ‘Jones’ on its own could legitimately be used as an example of a person with that surname, which will now probably be the subject of my next musing on the Blog thread!

  2. Monk says:

    Thanks, Dr C, for such a detailed analysis and clear response. I do like your valedictory example of how the article might be included without ambiguity.

    [While I’m here, is there a specific reason that ‘rubbish, adj.’ and ‘fragment, v.i.’ (+ conjugations) aren’t in the Clue Clinic anagram lists?]

    • Doctor Clue says:

      Hi Monk

      I know that none of the lists is comprehensive, as they all get enhanced from time to time, but the one that receives the bulk of the additions is (unsurprisingly) the anagram indicator list. I have, on occasion, declined to include a perfectly valid anagram indicator on the basis that I could not think of a situation where (at least in a gimmick-free clue) I would choose that word over a more appealing alternative (I’m thinking of something like ‘depredated’), but I know that there are still plenty of good ones missing from the list. While I occasionally identify one of these absentees myself, I enthusiastically welcome suggestions – ‘rubbish’ and ‘fragment’ will be added forthwith. Thank you!

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