(Photo credit: Balsavor)
I’ve made it to Devil Cross Puzzle #10! And I made it to the end of the school year. And somehow, I didn’t go crazy doing either.
Rather than spend the whole time celebrating, I thought I’d jump into a larger conversation about crosswords in general — specifically, what fill is bad fill? I recently reread Tyler Hinman’s blog post from a couple of years ago about his perception of declining fill standards in mainstream puzzles, and it got me thinking about creating my own road map about fill which I’m super-creatively titling Fill I Try To Avoid. I’ve posted variations of this list on other blogs, but I think now’s as good a time as any to post it to my own website.
Fill I Try To Avoid (roughly in order from most offensive to least offensive):
1. Obscure Word crossing another Obscure Word (what Rex Parker terms a “Natick“).
1A. Uninteresting obscurities (i.e. South American water bug genus).
1B. Some completely made-up word or phrase. BLUE CAR, EAT FISH, BUY A DRESS, etc.
These first three are pretty obvious puzzle-killers. I know there’s bound to be disagreement on what constitutes an obscure answer. Solvers come from a wide range of backgrounds, and besides, one person’s mystery is another person’s gimme. But I still think two rules of thumb apply: first, if it’s not interesting to you in real life, it probably won’t be interesting for the solver to figure out. And second, if you have to ask if an answer is too obscure, it probably is.
2. Variants. You know, entries like IGLU or AMEER. I hate these with a passion. They only exist to make the crossing answers fit because nothing else will do. If you have to go with one of these, it’s almost certainly worth rebuilding your grid so that you don’t need it.
3. Random Roman Numerals. I usually try to avoid all Roman numerals, although low numbers that you’d see on a grandfather clock or in the U.S. Constitution like VII or VIII are less egregious than the really random ones like CMLIII.
4. Uncommon abbreviations, initialisms, and acronyms. Something like OBAD. (short for the the Old Testament book Obadiah) or JAS. (short for James)
5. Prefixes/Suffixes 5 letters long or longer. ENTERO-, ASTERO-, CENTI-, -PHILE, etc.
6. Partial phrases. Things like A DAY or HAVE A. I’ve really grown to dislike these. Most outlets won’t accept partials longer than 5 letters and editors often discourage constructors from having too many of them in a single puzzle, but even the ones 5 letters and under still make me wince.
7. Repeats of common words (like HIT and HIT UP). This one is actually a puzzle-killer in most cases, though I’ve seen some puzzles break this rule if the fill is particularly challenging or if a theme warrants it.
8. Uncommon foreign words. One of the more popular examples I can think of is ESEL.
9. Nominalizations. These are words which take verbs and turn them into bizarre nouns by adding -R or -ER at the end and the definition is just “one who [verb]s.” For instance, a STANDER is one who stands, and a HOPER is one who hopes.
9A. Words which arbitrarily add RE- or BE- to the beginning (RETAPING, REHINGE, BEWIG, etc).
9B. Words which turn verbs into strange adjectives by adding A- to the beginning. Some of them, like ABLAZE, are okay, because you might actually use that one in a sentence. But once you start getting into AREEL and AGASP and ATIPTOE territory….
9C. Words which create bizarre past tenses, like NOED.
9D. Plurals of Convenience. I don’t mind plurals of common nouns and verbs, but I do mind the ones which are completely arbitrary. The worst examples I can think of are plural first or last names (LARRYS, OTTS). See a pattern here? Everything in #9 involves adding letters to words where you shouldn’t.
10. Using ONE’S in a phrase where it’s usually a different pronoun. This most frequently comes up in the case of quad-stack puzzles, where the O-N-E-S makes a grid-friendly combination in a 15-letter answer (like in the phrase A LOT ON ONE’S PLATE). As Amy Reynaldo once explained, though it is part of a well-known phrase, the ONE’S bit isn’t desirable because you’re far more likely to use YOUR (“A lot on your plate” rather than “A lot on one’s plate”).
11. 4-letter prefixes/suffixes (ENTO-, -ETTE, -CRAT, -ENES, etc).
12. Timeworn crosswordese (ERN, OLEO, ESNE, etc)
13. Repeats of incredibly common words (A, THE, TO, IN, etc).
14. 3-letter prefixes/suffixes (TRI-, MIS-, -ICS, etc).
I don’t doubt that other constructors have their own lists like this, and people are certainly welcome to disagree with the placement of this list’s entries (some people don’t mind partials at all, or hate 4-letter prefixes much more than I do). I’m open to debate, so feel free to suggest your own additions to the list, or challenge me on the merits of what constitutes bad fill. And of course, this list says absolutely nothing about what makes for good fill. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation.
I also want to emphasize that my point in drawing up this list isn’t to say that I’m a saint in this regard. I, like every other constructor, have used some of these types of answers before — I had AREAR in one of my New York Times puzzles earlier this year. Almost every puzzle relies on some less-than-stellar entries to hold up the better answers in a grid. There’s at least one violation of my list in today’s puzzle, in fact. But the goal, obviously, should be to minimize these little pieces of dreck. I think if you need to break open the emergency glass and use one of them, it’s way better to steer towards the bottom of this list than the top.
Today’s offering is a tough, 66-word themeless — my personal record low for a word count. Hopefully my fill stayed pretty clean in the process. Enjoy! There will be a new puzzle on June 6 (that’s a Friday — I’m posting it early because I’ll be away that entire weekend).