Listen With Others

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Listener No 4630, Tip-top Condition: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 15 Nov 2020

The inspiration for this one came from the famous Bob Dole / Clinton puzzle in The New York Times (see The Most Amazing Crossword Puzzle Ever and This Is Why if you’ve not come across it), where the clues led to two possible outcomes depending on who won the presidential election. I’d been very impressed by this idea when I heard about it, years ago, and had often wondered since if a similar thing could be achieved in the realms of the cryptic crossword. This sat in the back of my mind, without any serious thought of developing it, until the lightbulb moment when it struck me that the wordplay could exclude (or, as it turned out, replace) the ambiguous letter in each case.

As usual with my Listener ideas, I don’t recall exactly when I came up with just using I and O, but having had the thought I set about making a list of all the words I could come up with that could be treated in this way, and added to it whenever I thought of a new one – although, being impatient, I probably only made the list for a week or two before setting to work on the puzzle. In the end I came up with 35 possibilities, albeit some that were a bit of a stretch and I didn’t really want to submit if I could avoid it.

By far the harder exercise was getting all the words into a workable grid. I always wanted to have one whole row of ambiguous letters, but my first stab was to make it the central row: that proved far too hard, so I tried the second row from the top, and then the third when I realised I had plenty of words where the I/O ambiguity was the second or third letter of the word. Barring off as much as possible of the rows immediately above and below the unclued row was key to creating a grid that worked; another necessary step was finding words where the I/O came immediately before or (particularly) after a vowel, so that I could create what turned out to be TROMINO & NORN. Thank goodness for FOOL/FOIL & TOOL/TOIL.

What to use for the second unclued entry? I had the G from INCOMING/ONCOMING and therefore looked up every 13 letter word with a central G. I was briefly excited by HETEROGENEOUS, given that (Wikipedia informed me) a heterogeneous relation is a binary relation – but in the cold light of day it was clear that this was rather too obscure. Next I considered DOWNING STREET, with the obvious connection to 10, and came close to using it, but ended up with UNAMBIGUOUSLY because of its direct connection to what solvers had to do – this made the puzzle less complex, and allowed me to keep the preamble short.

I was delighted when I managed to complete the grid with almost all of my preferred I/O options, an acceptable average word length and the best set of unching I’ve ever managed (usually an area where I struggle). There also weren’t too many answers where the ambiguity was simply a change in tense (SHINE/SHONE & SMITE/SMOTE seemed like enough; to aid the definitions for those clues I did google every verb that is the same in the past and present tense, and cast / beat fit the bill nicely for those two). Imagine, then, my disappointment when I realised that the word NORK (coinciding with SPIKES / SPOKES in this version of the grid) had only one meaning, and not one that I would be prepared to include in a Times crossword! A bit of reworking, not as trivial as I’d hoped, fortunately did the job.

Some of the I/O options that didn’t make the cut include:

  • TITTER / TOTTER (lose balance)
  • MITE / MOTE (small thing in the Bible)
  • CHIP / CHOP (strike with a sharp blow)
  • SLIP / SLOP (loose garment)
  • MILLIE / MOLLIE (girl’s name)
  • TIMMY / TOMMY (boy’s name; I deleted this from my list of possibilities, though, when I remembered Tammy Abraham)

In the final list I played the definitions with a fairly straight bat, but there were a few more tenuous options – or perhaps more fun, depending on your point of view. Mostly the limitations of the grid made the decision for me, hence these were all cut, so I didn’t have to worry about the balance between raising smiles and raising eyebrows:

  • FLICK / FLOCK (The Birds, perhaps?)
  • DIES / DOES (gets executed?)
  • FIRE / FORE (possible warning shout)
  • STICKS / STOCKS (means of punishment)
  • BIAS / BOAS (what might constrict)
  • TIMES / TOMES (reading material)
  • TIED / TOED (perhaps having five on each side)

The last of these, which I completely forgotten before coming to write up this blog, was a shame to have lost. Ah well. It’s no coincidence that most of these were four letter words with the I/O as the second letter, since they tended to be the most useless for the purposes of creating a workable grid – no such words made the final cut. One – slightly blasphemous? – note I would add is that I wanted my definitions to be a little stronger than those in the CLINTON / BOB DOLE puzzle, which was a masterpiece but which included slightly dubious efforts like “French 101 word” for OUI / LUI and “Provider of support, for short” for IRA/BRA. Don’t think that would get into the Listener. The tricksiest definition I used was the one about creating radical upheaval, where I learnt with joy that ‘radical’ could relate to roots.

One of the possibilities that didn’t make the puzzle was TIP/TOP (‘furthest point’) but obviously I repurposed it for the title, and it also gave me the idea for a message spelled out using the starts and ends of clues; treating even and odd clues differently felt nicely thematic. This made the clues harder to write, naturally, which I think contributed to them being an easier set than some of the ones I’ve written: for example, I was happy with ‘Rub back softly to get this?’ but would have used an alternative to ‘Rub’ if I hadn’t had to start the clue with an R. Hopefully, though, they weren’t so awkward as to awake suspicion in the solver – I don’t think so.

Having decided to make the first unclued entry the binary representation of a number, I got lucky that the Listener is currently in a lengthy run where the puzzle number uses 13 digits in binary (anything from Mr E’s Some Assembly Required in 2010 to – I’ve read on a forum this week! – January 2089 would have been fine). I did play around with some more exciting binary numbers – e.g. alternate 1s and 0s – but I wasn’t prepared to wait the years / decades required, and in any case there was something about submitting a puzzle without knowing myself what the answer would be that made me chuckle. This may have been a joke restricted just to me and the editors!

Speaking of whom, many thanks as always to Shane & Roger for their expertise, as well as to John Green for his tireless marking. Thanks also to John, Paul & Stuart who test-solved the puzzle for me; they all told me that I couldn’t have ‘Guilty, perhaps, of foot leaving crease’ in an across clue, but I tried nonetheless (foot of the bed?). They were, of course, right, but fortunately the edited clue was an excellent suggestion that I was happy to have instead.

One final confession… since I was a few years old I have had a teddy bear called Pluggy, and I took great delight in slipping him into the bottom row of the crossword.


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