You might have heard the advice to 'ignore punctuation' in a cryptic crossword clue. Whilst there is some truth to that, there are three very important punctuation marks that should not be ignored as they may give important information to the solver. These are the apostrophe, the question mark and the exclamation mark.
Let's look at them in turn.
Apostrophe contractions are often used by the setter to hide cryptic meaning in the surface of the clue. By studying the way 'S can be employed by a setter we can see them at work:
A swimmer's hat and what it goes on (10)
A swimmer - definition (BONNETHEAD - a type of shark)
's - contraction of IS & link to wordplay
hat - bonnet
and what it goes on - HEAD
... here the 'S is reads as a possesional apostrophe in the clue's surface, but a contraction of IS in the clue's cryptic reading which forms a LINK to the wordplay. That is to say, DEFINITION IS WORDPLAY.
Charlie's down, worried by department deadline (7,4)
charlie - C (phonetic alphabet)
's - contraction of HAS (positional indicator)
down - LOSING
worried - ATE (a standard crossword synonym)
by - positional indicator
department - D (abbreviation for department)
deadline - definition (CLOSING DATE)
... here the 'S is a contraction of IS in the surface of the clue, and a contraction of HAS in the cryptic reading. HAS can function as a positional link showing two bits of fodder C and LOSING sit next to each other in the answer word. In other words C has LOSING or, if we break it down further, FODDER A has FODDER B.
The following is a DOWN clue - note the postional indicator.
Joint stashed under southern gang's boat (9)
joint - hip
stashed under - positional indicator
southern - S (abbreviation for southern)
gang - team
's - S
boat - definition (STEAMSHIP)
.... here the 'S is a possesional 'S in the clue's surface, but is used to indicate the letter S in the clues cryptic reading. This device is used in many clue types, but you are likely to see it most in charades and anagrams.
Another DOWN clue - note the last letter indicator.
Sailor starting to touch a vicar's bottom (3)
sailor - definition (TAR)
starting to touch - T & first letter indicator
a - A
vicar's bottom - R & last letter indicator
... here the 'S is again a possesional 'S in both surface and cryptic reading and is used to link to BOTTOM as a last letter indicator. This tells the solver to use VICAR'S BOTTOM - the bottom of the word VICAR (R) to help make the answer word. Note that the use of BOTTOM is a down clue specific indicator.
When you see a question mark in a clue it may mean one of the following things:
? - The clue may be a cryptic definition
? - The words or definition prior to the QM are a whimsical, or non-dictionary definition of the word the solver must find.
? - The words or definition prior to the QM may require a little bit of a stretch in meaning for the clue to work.
? - The sentence requires it grammatically.
? - The definition or word prior to the QM is a definition by example.
The last indication DEFINITION BY EXAMPLE (or DBE) is when the word or phrase following the question mark provides an example of the answer.
... Garbo? could be an example of an 'ACTOR' or 'ACTRESS'
... Paris? could be an example of a 'CITY' or a 'SHAKESPEAREAN CHARACTER'.
The definition by example hints that the word or phrase is an example of the group or genre it belongs to, or hints that the phrase is an example of what the answer is or does. It is worth noting that DBEs can also be indicated words such as FOR EXAMPLE/PERHAPS/SAY/FOR ONE.
Here is an example of definition by example in a clue:
Hunt for one heavy breather that's ringing Hoskins (7)
Hunt - definition (Hunt was a painter)
for one - definition by example indicator (read this as Hunt is an example of one)
heavy breather - PANTER
that's ringing - surround indicator
Hoskins - I
The exclamation mark is used in the following way:
! - To indicate to the solver there is something unusual going on in the clue such as a new or different clue type.
! - To indicate that a liberty is being taken with the 'rules' of clue construction.
! - To indicate a large contradiction in the parts of a clue.
When you see an exclamation mark in a clue you should always try to think laterally and expect the unexpected.
Enumeration tells you how many words and letters form the answer word. You will find the enumeration in brackets at the end of the clue (it is not part of the clue). Here is the sort of thing you'll come across:
Indicates the answer words is four letters
Indicates the answer is three words of five, two, and three letters respectively.
Indicates the word is hyphenated with five letters before the hyphen and five after.
NOTE: Apostrophes are not usually indicated in enumeration and as such the word O'CLOCK may have the enumeration (1,5) or (6).