Warning: nerdy post ahead

Crossword geeks sometimes argue very fine points of puzzle construction. This is one of those times. Fair warning!

In today’s New York Times crossword, entitled “Passing Grades,” constructor Yaakov Bendavid uses a theme in which the failing F’s in theme entries change to passing D’s. For example, Transportation company that skimps on safety? is a NO-DRILLS AIRLINE instead of a “no-frills airline,” and One who turned Cinderella’s pumpkin into pumpkin cheesecake? is her DAIRY GODMOTHER instead of her “fairy godmother.” Here is the solution grid:

bendavid

So far so good, but puzzle critic Rex Parker dinged one of the theme entries at his blog:

Also—major stylistic oversight—there’s still a pesky “F” left in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN. As a general rule, you want your core theme concept to be not just consistent, but executed to squeaky clean perfection. If you’re changing Fs to Ds, you just can’t leave Fs on the table.

Seems like a fair point, but New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz pushed back in comments:

For the record, I don’t give a hoot about the second F in 49A.

Does the theme answer read naturally? Does it make sense? Is it funny? That’s what I care about.

So who’s right? Let’s take a look.

First of all, let’s clarify that we’re talking here not about change-a-letter themes in general, but cases where one specific letter is changed to the same specific letter in all theme entries. In today’s NYT, that’s the F’s in theme entries changing to D’s. In other puzzles of this general theme type the letters are usually different from one theme entry to the next; that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The two main reasons to not leave an unchanged F like in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN are: 1) it’s confusing for solvers, since some of the F’s are changed in theme entries and some are not, and 2) it’s inconsistent and therefore stylisticially inelegant.

Take a look at this 2009 New York Times puzzle by Patrick Blindauer, where the last letter of phrases that end in E is changed to an A, such as NAME THAT TUNA:

blindauer

Here I’d argue that it’s alright that some of the phrases have unchanged E’s in them, for two reasons: first, since E is a very common (in fact the most common) letter, the unchanged E’s won’t stick out to solvers; and second, since the changed letters are all positioned in a specific place — the last letter of the entry — solvers won’t be confused by the unchanged E’s elsewhere.

Now take a look at this 2010 New York Times puzzle by Anna Shechtman, where B’s are changed to A’s in entries such as HONEY COMA or LAMA CHOPS (a similar grade-changing idea to today’s NYT). Here the B is a rare enough letter that unchanged B’s would’ve stood out, and there’s no specific positioning of the changed letters to clarify for solvers what’s going on. In this case, it was a good thing that the constructor left no unchanged B’s in the theme entries, and it would’ve been a dingable offense if she had.

shechtman

Which brings us back to today’s puzzle and lets us render a judgment on this point: the F is a rare enough letter that it sticks out, less like the E in the Blindauer than the B in the Shechtman, and there is no consistent positioning of the changed F’s in the theme entries.

For these reasons, we can say: the F in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN is inelegant, and Rex Parker was correct to flag it as such in his post.

Crossword of the Month, January 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for January 2014. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

Numbers Game by Pete Muller. Muller Monthly Music Meta, Dec. 31st, 2013.

pm-head-shot1-150x150

Complex and mysterious meta that revealed its secrets one after the next. [Note: although this puzzle was published on Dec. 31st, I couldn’t have included it in the December Crossword of the Month post because I didn’t solve it in time. So it’s been bumped up to the month in which I and most others actually solved it.]

One Liner by Erik Agard. Glutton for Pun, Jan. 8th, 2014.

agard

Indie puzzle writers can do whatever they want, including use a grid that measures 67×5 squares if they deem it worthwhile. It was here.

Untitled by Patrick Berry. The New York Times, Jan. 10th, 2014.

Berry

An archetypal Berry themeless, with a low word count, wide-open grid, and very clean fill.

Untitled by Lynn Lempel. The New York Times, Jan. 13th, 2014.

LynnLempel

A fine example of an easy crossword done well: novel theme, clean fill, fun reveal.

Themeless #27 by Peter Broda. The Cross Nerd, Jan. 20th, 2014.

PeterBroda

Again, indie puzzle writers can do whatever they want, and that includes freestyle puzzles.

And the winner is…
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crosswordofthemonth

Peter Broda for Themeless #27.

There goes the neighborhood, but this oddball piece of work was my favorite solve of the month.

Themeless puzzles seem to be bifurcating into silky-smooth, wide-open, more database-driven grids on one hand (such as the Berry nominated this month) and highly idiosyncratic, marquee-answer-packed, bizarrely clued grids like this one on the other (Erik Agard is another practitioner of this style).

I can appreciate both approaches, but an excellent specimen of the latter grabs you by the lapels and shakes the craziest words and phrases out of your brain, while remaining no stranger to classical content. This wild energy won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but it does make for an unforgettable solve, and earns this puzzle my pick for January’s Crossword of the Month.

(I won’t ruin the experience by providing spoilers, but I will warn you here about 63-Across; it’s not for the faint of heart).

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

January 2014 — Peter Broda, The Cross Nerd
December 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword