Thursday, January 29, 2015

Puzzography: The Early Years

The first crossword puzzle I ever saw was in a pulp magazine about science that was written for grade school kids.  This was in 1956, so I hope you'll forgive me for not remembering the particulars of the puzzle, though I think---really going out on a limb here--- it had a sciencey-type theme.

Along with the puzzle was an invitation to the readers to send in their own crossword creations.  So I set to work immediately, put one together, and sent it right away to the editor.  Again, the intervening years have left the details of the puzzle in an impenetrable mist.  Too bad I didn't make a copy.

What I do remember clearly (and painfully) is that I never heard a peep from the publication.  Nothing.  Nada.  Silence.  As the weeks, then months, passed without any word [cue crickets chirping] my hopes sank.  My fledgling crossword ambitions crushed, I finally gave up.

So I decided to start my own publication at school, one with a crossword puzzle in it.  I called the paper "The Weekly Blab".  It had some gossip about who was sweet on who, a serial adventure story featuring Donald Duck, a treasure hunt location clue, and much, much, much more.  And it only cost a nickel!

I did save a couple of the early issues.  The master copy was hand-printed with a toxic smelling purple ink and was then laid on top of a flat gel surface that absorbed some of the ink.  After the master was removed, a few copies could be made by placing blank sheets of paper on the gel surface where they would reabsorb some of the ink.   Each copy would be slightly lighter than the previous one, until the ink, rather quickly as I remember, faded completely away.

So that was my first published crossword puzzle,  March 4, 1957, with eleven words and six black squares in a 6X6 grid.  No symmetry.  Here are the clues:

          1. Might; power
          2. Musical drama
          3. Change
          4. Foe
          5. Withered
          6. Lock of hair

          1. Woods
          2. Device for opening [needed some editing here!]
          3. Hold in great respect
          4. Violations of the law
          5. Not difficult

The filled grid looked something like this, where X represents a black square/block:

          F O R C E X
          O P E R A X
          R E V  I  S E
          E N E M Y X
          S E R E X X
          T R E S S X

Yeah, even some crosswordese with SERE at 5-Across, and my very first POC (Plural Of Convenience) with CRIMES at 4-Down.

I did a couple more in the next issues, but none ever reached the soaring heights of that first one.  Readership began to dwindle and then the school year ended.  And with that, so did the brief but unremarkable life and times of "The Weekly Blab".

I didn't forget the bitter disappointment of that first puzzle submission that was never answered yea or nay by the editor.  I think I developed some newbie constructor PTSD.  Thus the lengthy hiatius, 50 years or so, until my second submission attempt, to The Chronicle of Higher Education.  This time I got a timely reply from the editor, Patrick Berry, and with his patient and expert guidance, I got my second publication with a puzzle titled "Think Again" in the Chronicle, September 26, 2008.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Letter Count Inflation (LCI)

When constructing a puzzle, I sometimes see a word that will fit beautifully with most of the letters of the crossing words in that section of the grid, except for one problem.  It has fewer letters than the number of squares in that position.  There are some options that can help me resolve the issue, i.e., increase the letter count of the base word* (usually the word in its first alphabetical appearance in the dictionary) to match the number of squares I'm trying to fill.

I call  these devices Letter Count Inflation, partly because that's what's going on---the number of letters in a base word or phrase is being boosted---and partly because it makes for a spiffy initialism, LCI.  In the vast majority of cases the LCI is for expediency or convenience.  It's gratuitous.  It's there only because it ups the letter count and makes it easier to fill the grid, not because it adds value or interest to the puzzle.

One of the most frequently encountered methods to inflate the letter count is to take a base word, typically a noun or verb, and add an S, an ES, or drop a Y and add IES.  The resulting longer word is what I call a Plural Of Convenience, or POC, and I have posted about POCs elsewhere on this blog.

Another LCI option is to take a base word that is a verb and change it into a noun.  Consider the verb ASPIRE.  By adding an R, I can take that six-letter word and make it fit a seven-letter slot.  An additional letter-count boost to eight can be had by adding on a POC.   We would go from ASPIRE to ASPIRER to ASPIRERS.  A clue starting out along the lines of "One who...", or "Those who..." is often a tell-tale sign that a noun-to-verb LCI has gone down.

There are two more ways verbs can be used for LCIs.   The first is shifting the tense, usually from the present to the past, and the second is shifting from the base form of the verb to a gerund/present participle.  The typical tense shift will amp up the letter-count by two, e.g., CAMP to CAMPED (a 50% letter-count increase), while going to the gerund can net a three-letter boost, e.g., CAMP to CAMPING (a 75% letter-count increase).

Adjectives can provide a rich lode for mining LCIs, as when one takes on an adverb's clothing and gets a two-letter uptick, for example, from APT to APTLY.  For some advanced LCI, you can combine the verb-to-gerund and the adjective-to-adverb ploys to give some amazing letter-count boosting.  Consider the base word FIT.  An LCI to FITTING gives a 133% letter-count increase, while doubling up on LCIs to FITTINGLY gives a whopping 200% letter-count and subsequent grid fill increase.  Is there an equivalent 200% increase in value/meaning/interest?  Not for me, not even close.

Another LCI that I see regularly is shifting to the comparative or superlative form of an adjective. This can net a two-, three-, or even four- or more letter bump.   A good example would be FAR, FARTHER/FURTHER, FARTHEST/FURTHEST , with the superlative giving a 166% grid-space-filling increase.  The champion in this department, methinks, would be FITTINGEST, coming in with a 233% increase in grid-filling power.   

Using prefixes is another way to increase letter count, the most common probably being the oft encountered RE-, followed closely by UN- & IN-, with CON- et al. seen occasionally.  Just today I solved a top tier puzzle with both REROOT & UNNEATLY (!) in the grid.  

The common thread for all LCI's is increasing the amount of grid space that gets filled without adding a commensurate amount of value or interest to the puzzle.  LCI's just make it easier to fill the grid.   They make the "artful arrangement of words crossing one another" less artful.

I think LCI's are like abbreviations, partial phrases, foreign words, random Roman numerals, crosswordese, and the like.  Any of these used judiciously to facilitate filling the grid of an otherwise excellent puzzle would be unremarkable and above reproach.   It's when they are used excessively that, for me, they become intrusive and degrade the overall quality and integrity of the puzzle, and diminish my enjoyment of the solving experience.

Be on the lookout for LCIs in a puzzle near you.

*By base or core word I mean the form of the word that cannot be reduced further without losing the meaning of the word. Remove any of its letters and it becomes meaningless or its meaning is completely changed, or it loses its standing as a word and becomes, for example, an abbreviation.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Puzzography: The later years

Sometime in late 2007/early 2008 I was sitting at the kitchen table after finishing that morning's crossword puzzle when I heard myself saying "I could do better than that".  Turns out that's a whole bunch easier said than done, but with a lot of help from many sources and a few zillion hours work (I kid!), I've managed to get a handful of puzzles published.  Here they are, in chronological order:

9/26/08  "Think Again", Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE)

11/21/08  "One for the Ladies", USA Today (USA)

6/26/09  "Weaponyms", CHE

8/11/09  "Snake in the Grass", USA

8/15/09  "Giddyup", Universal Syndicate

9/23/09  "Minor Defects", USA

12/7/09  Untitled, Los Angeles Times (LAT)

3/22/10  Untitled, LAT

6/15/10  Untitled, LAT

10/11/10  Untitled, New York Times (NYT)

3/8/11  Untitled, LAT

7/18/11  Untitled, LAT

9/26/11  Untitled, LAT

7/20/12  "Natural Misunderstandings", CHE

11/8/12  Untitled, LAT

3/11/13  Untitled, NYT

2/19/15 Untitled, LAT

10/1/17  "That's One Way To Put It", NYT

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

POC Levels

In crossword constructing, a POC (Plural OConvenience) can be, well, convenient.  I can take a 5-letter word, say, and instantly make it into a  6- or 7-letter one by just adding an S or an ES.  How easy is that?  I can vouch that it is temptingly so.  As is often the case with temptations, however, there is a price to be paid for giving in.

The price for succumbing to the POC's siren song is a reduction in the puzzle's overall quality.  After all, the constructor just used a short cut to make it easier to complete the grid.  There was an increase in filled grid space without a commensurate increase in value.

The degree to which a puzzle's quality is impacted depends on what kind of POCs are used and how many times they appear in the puzzle (too many and it can become POC marked!).

The kind of POC can be categorized into four levels, going from the hardly noticeable (Level 1) to what should be a deal killer (Level 4).

Level 1 POC is the common-as-dirt kind, found in almost all puzzles.  POCs at this level involve only a single, relatively short entry being pluralized to up its letter count   One might see a Level 1 POC in a corner like this (the NE corner from my 11/8/12 LAT):

      J E E R
      A X L E
     W A L L
F L I  M S Y

There 'tis, ELLS.  Hardly noticeable, but a POC nonetheless.

Level 2 gives the constructor two POCs in one.  Two entries share an S at the end.  This is more of a threat to the puzzle's quality because that "S" is the equivalent of what's called a "cheater square", or, more charitably, a "helper square". This is a black square that doesn't change the word count, it just makes it easier to fill in the grid.  In other words, that shared final S in a Level 2 POC could be changed to a black square and then just clue the words as singular rather than plural.  Have I been guilty of this more serious POC?  Yup, sad to say.   From the same puzzle, SE corner:

       A Y E
O I  L E R

That's just too easy and it's why I think a Level 2 POC is a more serious threat to a puzzle's quality.  I was able to rework that corner to eliminate that two-for-one POC in about six or seven minutes.  Wish I had done that before submitting it for publication.

Level 3 is when a long, non-theme entry is a POC.  Say, for example, HEX BOLT fits beautifully with some fantastic crossing fill, but it's a letter short for that slot.  No problem, just add an S.  But now a much more integral part of the puzzle has been compromised than happens in Levels 1 & 2.

Level 4 POCs so compromise a puzzle's quality that they really should be deal killers.  This is where a theme entry is a POC.  Rarely seen, but it does happen.

Have I been guilty of using a Level 3 or 4 POC in my puzzles?  Nope, glad to say.

The other factor that can impact puzzle quality is how many POCs appear in the puzzle.  Obviously, the more POCs, the greater the impact.  Since the relative frequency of the letter S in standard English text is around 6%, I think any frequency significantly above this in a grid, say 12% or higher, shouts "POC Assisted" or even "POC Marked".  (Only 4% of the 100 tiles in a Scrabble set are S's.)

Combining POC frequency with POC Levels offers a way to give each puzzle a POC Score.   The POC Score could then be used along with more commonly discussed  factors, like theme consistency, excess abbreviations, long partials, etc., to rate the puzzle's overall quality.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

POC doc.

I became aware of what I like to call a "plural of convenience" (POC) after I tried my hand at crossword constructing.  I remember an early attempt where I had only one pesky corner remaining to be filled.  The solution turned out to be simply a matter of adding an "s" to one of the words in that corner and, kaboom, the grid was complete.  This is a big milestone for a fledgling constructor, believe me.

Imagine that you have invested hours on a puzzle and have filled in all of the grid except the last corner.  There, one possible solution would work except that a word that fits four out of the five required squares, say FANG, is, unfortunately, a letter short of the number of squares in that slot.  And then you see that by simply adding an "S" to FANG, it all falls into place.  Woo-hoo!

Who could resist?    I couldn't, and it appears other constructors are in the same boat.  I've never seen a puzzle that didn't have a POC or two, or sometimes many more, even in top-tier ones like the NYT or LAT.

That first experience got me hooked on POCs, but I still had a tinge of regret that I had to resort to what is essentially a short cut in constructing my puzzle.  I had filled up additional grid space without adding anything of substance.  FANGS takes up 25% more grid space than FANG, but adds little if any additional value.

I should mention that POC is not a grammatical term.   It's a crossword term that means adding an "S", "ES", or dropping a "Y" and adding "IES", (whether the word be a noun or verb*) in order to boost the word's letter count and give it more grid space filling power. POCs make it easier to fill the grid.

Not all POCs are the same.  I'm seeing four levels, from the common-as-dirt to the deal-killer.

For more, check out my post,  POC levels.

*Often times the word getting an "S" or "ES" can be clued as either a noun or verb.  LOVES would be an example.  Clueing it as a verb rather than a noun doesn't change the fact that a POC has been used to boost the letter count and---I think it's worth repeating---make it easier to fill the grid.

Post script:  After becoming aware of how much adding an "S" or "ES" to a word or phrase can help in filling grid space, I realized that a POC isn't the only letter-count-boosting device available to the constructor to make it easier to fill the grid.  I have added another post on this blog, Letter Count Inflation (LCI), to discuss these methods.