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:


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:


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.


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.

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