Themelesses (CTS, Pt. 2)

Hey, everybody. T Campbell here, picking up where we left off last week. “Callin’ Them Squares” is a Saturday series that tries to define the many different types of crosswords, and make some observations to help constructors along the way.

The first of our six classes of crosswords is the themeless. Let’s do a simple description first, to help the crossword newbie who may have found this entry by googling.

mondrianThemelesses are defined by what they lack. Unlike most classes, there is no obvious connection between key answer words (known as “grid entries” or just “entries” in the biz).

Newspaper crosswords encourage a themeless to have a lower, and often more exotic, word-count than themed puzzles. The results are usually more challenging, and papers increase their puzzles’ difficulty as the week progresses, so you can usually see them on Friday or Saturday. The larger 21x21s that appear in most newspapers on Sunday are rarely themeless, though.

Outside the newspaper field, many constructors love to work with themelesses for the challenge and freedom they offer. Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are dominated by this genre, and Brendan Emmett Quigley uses it often. CrosSynergy bucks the typical newspaper practice by offering a small themeless each Sunday.

In some amateur venues, themeless puzzles are the norm, though they don’t feature the show-offy grids and/or advanced vocabulary of their newspaper cousins or online works aimed at the experienced solver.

I can hear constructor Matt Gaffney grinding his teeth already. From Matt’s own blog:

I’ve always disliked the phrase “themeless crossword,” since it’s negative, stressing what’s not there (a theme) over what is there (generally livelier vocabulary than themed puzzles).

painting_jackson_pollockAided by reader suggestions, Matt instead nominated the phrase “freestyle crossword,” and his colleague Matt Jones endorsed it. (No word from Matt Ginsberg, though. Where’s your Matt-solidarity, Matt?)

I find myself a bit torn here. It is true that a themeless, done properly, has virtues that “compensate” for the absence of a theme, greater freedom for the constructor foremost among them.

But ultimately, I can’t endorse “freestyle” here, now, yet, for reasons of utility. The term “themeless” is slightly more descriptive, because there are other ways for a puzzle to break out of usual stylistic restrictions, as we’ll see later. And it has a big head start: a lot more people know and understand “themeless” than “freestyle,” whereas the other classes we’re exploring have no widely accepted names at this writing. I could probably overlook the first consideration, but not the second.

wil-wheatonYou’ll have to work harder to get the rest of us to swim your way, Matts. Start publishing anthologies of “Freestyle Crosswords.” Make the bumper sticker that says “I Do It Freestyle Friday and Saturday Nights.” Get celebrity endorsements: Wil Wheaton will do anything if you convince him that the nerds who hated him in Star Trek will think it’s cool. Give it a few years. We’ll talk.

Next week: themeless categories. (Or: categories? Of themelesses?)

About T Campbell

T Campbell is a crossword constructor and comics scriptwriter. Among his cruciverbal accomplishments are the Ubercross C-Spot (the largest puzzle to follow New York Times standard rules), Crossworlds, a collection of 50 science-fiction-themed puzzles, and the forthcoming On Crosswords: Callin' Out Them Squares.
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22 Responses to Themelesses (CTS, Pt. 2)

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    How about this: when you present a word ending in -less as a positive (“themeless”) then the implication is that the -less thing is a bad thing. E.g. “Sugarless gum” implies that sugar is a bad thing and you want this gum because it doesn’t have any.

    Similarly, a “themeless crossword” implies that themes are undesirable, a burden mercifully gone.

  2. Neville says:

    I use ‘themeless’ because of the convention – I can tell my friends I have a themeless puzzle coming out and they’re all “Oh snap! Too hard for me!” If I said that I have freestyle puzzle coming out, I’d get confused looks – even over the Internet.

    That said, I like ‘freestyle’ because when I construct, it feels like I’ve got a lot more freedom when I’m putting the puzzle together. I have more leniency with where I put black squares, I don’t have to put fun entries symmetrically, and so on.

    So, for me, ‘freestyle’ works great as a constructor, but as a solver, all I give a darn about is whether the puzzle has a theme or not.

    I also like how CrosSynergy calls its Sunday puzzle a ‘challenge.’ If themeless puzzles were universally harder, I’d be a big fan of this overall. But if you’ve done the ‘themeless’ AM New York puzzle, the you know that this is not the case at all!

    PS Matt – I’ve been stuck on the meta for an hour now. Expect another Tuesday morning email at this rate :P

  3. pannonica says:

    Regarding Matt’s parsing, I don’t feel “themeless” necessarily presents a puzzle as positive in relation to a themed puzzle, but rather forms a neutral descriptive. That is, “this puzzle happens not to have a theme.” No diametric dichotomy here.

  4. john farmer says:

    If there is a subtle difference between “themeless” and “freestyle,” it may be so subtle it’s not even an issue. I’ll go with the prevailing convention. If everyone wants to call them freestyles, fine with me, but till then I’ll call them themeless puzzles.

    I do not agree that the -less suffix implies what comes before it is undesirable. The suffix usually is added to differentiate one type of thing from the more common type of thing. I didn’t think a value judgment was implied. Moreover, there are lots of -less terms that don’t at all imply the root word is undesirable: homeless person, motherless child, loveless marriage, flightless bird, thankless task.

    I’m surprised that the complaint about “themeless” is that it implies themes are bad. I think you could argue that -less means it’s missing something, and themes are desirable. You could probably argue either way, but what the word implies only might matter when you first hear the term, and for anyone who knows the difference between themed and themeless puzzles, it’s the puzzles that will determine any value judgment about which is better, not the name.

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    “Moreover, there are lots of -less terms that don’t at all imply the root word is undesirable: homeless person, motherless child, loveless marriage, flightless bird, thankless task.”

    Yes but none of those terms are generally presented as positives: a person should have a home and being homeless is bad, a child should have a mother and you don’t want your child to be motherless, etc.

    “I don’t feel “themeless” necessarily presents a puzzle as positive in relation to a themed puzzle, but rather forms a neutral descriptive. That is, “this puzzle happens not to have a theme.” No diametric dichotomy here.”

    Point taken, which means that at best “themeless crossword” is a neutral term. So why not a positive term like “freestyle”?

  6. Evad says:

    When men go into a topless bar, I bet they’re pretty happy about what the women are lacking! ;)

  7. T Campbell says:

    While I think it’s good to debate the merits of one term versus another, I wasn’t completely kidding with my last big paragraph. The term used by solvers is always going to trump and eventually displace any term used by constructors, if for no other reason than today’s solvers are tomorrow’s constructors. The term “freestyle,” if it’s to overcome “themeless,” needs to be promoted to the solver, who’s less likely to read these commentaries but likely to order a book that calls itself Freestyle Crosswords 2011.

    Getting a regular supplier of themelesses to call them “freestyles” would be a good start. I’m lookin’ at you, CrosSynergy, and your wishy-washy name for your “Sunday Challenge.” I mean, DUH, EVERY CROSSWORD IS A CHALLENGE, you know what you call a crossword that isn’t a challenge? An “autocomplete.”

  8. *David* says:

    I would argue less against the term “less” but more against the term “theme”. These puzzles deserve their own platform and should no longer be defined by themed puzzles. Calling them themeless limits their definition in relation to a themed puzzle. Let them have their own category and defined name in their own right. Whether freestyle is the right term, can be debated but I think enough of these puzzles come out that they can have their own name separate from the term “theme”.

  9. john farmer says:

    When you have two types of puzzles — Type A and Type B — how you define the types is more important than what you call them. If one type is puzzles with a theme and the other type is puzzles without a theme, then changing the name doesn’t change anything. You’re always going to have “themed” puzzled and “themeless” puzzles.

    Let’s say you successfully get the whole x-world to call themeless puzzles “freestyle.” How do you define freestyle puzzles? Puzzles without a theme.

    Isn’t is simpler to just call them themeless?

  10. pannonica says:

    Yes but none of those terms are generally presented as positives: a person should have a home and being homeless is bad, a child should have a mother and you don’t want your child to be motherless, etc. • Whoa, whoa. It seems you want to eat your cake and have it too? You’re implying that just about any –less word is tinged with “badness,” by selectively focussing on the root or the entirety. Merciless.

    “…at best “themeless crossword” is a neutral term. So why not a positive term like “freestyle”?” • Oh, ok. Well actually, if anything, I see “freestyle” as a somewhat negative term, suggesting the puzzle edges toward the undisciplined and chaotic. In fact, I would associate British cryptics and Puns & Anagrams with the term “freestyle.” Weightless.

    “These puzzles deserve their own platform and should no longer be defined by themed puzzles. Calling them themeless limits their definition in relation to a themed puzzle.” • While it’s true that these puzzles have retroactively been called themeless as a result of the emergence of themed puzzles, bemoaning the term and implementing some newfangled alternative has limited chance for success.

    Coke, Diet Coke.
    Crossword, Diet Crossword.
    Pepsi, Pepsi Free.
    Crossword, Crossword Free.
    Coke Classic.
    Crossword Classic.
    Pepsi Natural.
    Crossword Natural.

    Perhaps the best thing to do is simply call them “crosswords” and hopefully skip the step of appending then shedding an all-but-vestigial “classic” or “original.” On the other hand, “crossword”—like “Coke”—can be dangerously generic. Vanilla Crossword? Nah.

    You know, this is a knotty subject. Hopeless?

  11. pannonica says:

    Addendum: The cola comparisons, while perhaps amusing, make for a bad analogy because in their compound modification they’re more akin to “Themeless Crossword” than to a new, self-contained name like “Freestyle.”

  12. joon says:

    i don’t have a horse in this race, but i feel like everybody’s either mis- or just plain not understanding matt’s point.

  13. pannonica says:

    I have to admit that the first time I read Matt’s comment, I glossed over the “when you present a word ending in -less as a positive” conditional and as I babbled on I may have subconsciously reverted a little to my first impression.

    Just be thankful, everyone, that I didn’t post my pointless exegesis of crossword taxonomy in a biological taxonomy framework. Cruciverbum motif and C. avocalis indeed!

  14. John Haber says:

    “Freestyle” would be either puzzling or negative (chaotic) to me, too, while “themeless” is merely descriptive.

    I’m not convinced either by the post’s other main point, that a themeless puzzle is necessarily easier. A theme may present an additional challenge on top of the fill, or it may present an additional challenge to entering the answers, both of which are why themed cryptics are most often the hardest. Unthemed puzzles in venues less sophisticated than the NYT are obviously often very easy.

    Of course, themes, once cracked, can also give a solver a handle, or just keep the solver awake. But I tend to think of Friday and Saturday as the NYT’s conscious choice to make its hardest puzzles themeless.

  15. T Campbell says:

    John, that’s a valid point and I’ve changed the piece accordingly.

  16. pannonica says:

    “Freestyle” is more X-Games than X-Words, no?

  17. Howard B says:

    If a themeless puzzle becomes a timeless classic (among puzzle enthusiasts), what connotation does that imply?

    Themes can increase or decrease a puzzle’s overall difficulty, depending on the nature of the theme, the difficulty of the fill, and the amount of caffeine ingested by the solver beforehand.
    A very twisty or abstract theme that doesn’t immediately give away its common bond between answers may serve to make the ol’ brain cells work a bit harder. A theme which has no wordplay (such as a simple vowel-progression, such as BAD/BED/BID/BOD/BUD at the end of a phrase), may help ease things along, once it’s revealed. So the correlation between themed/unthemed and difficulty is fuzzy at best, especially outside of the popular syndicated puzzles.

  18. KarmaSartre says:

    I have solved quite a few puzzles and they seem to fall into two broad categories –

    1) themeless, where none of the answers are especially connected, and
    2) mostly themeless, where a few of the answers are especially connected.

  19. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Ah, but my favorite themeless puzzles do evoke the “freestyle” vibe of the X-Games. How high can Shaun White launch himself on a snowboard? How many kickass entries (e.g., BAZOOKA JOE, COSMO GIRL, ARE YOU NUTS) can the constructor fit in there, and how many tricky clues can shanghai my thought process? I want to be amazed at the crazy feats the constructor and editor pull off. Now, many themeless puzzles, particularly the easier ones and the low-word-count ones, don’t have much of that pizzazz. Maybe the “freestyle” tag should be reserved for the X-Games sort of themeless puzzle.

    I echo John Haber in calling those lame unthemed easy puzzles (often in a 13×13 format in the daily paper, but also 15×15) “unthemed” rather than “themeless.” Those have a standard word count rather than a tighter max of 72, and they are almost entirely devoid of sparkle. Given how many of those are out there, they do need to be delineated as a category of themeless.

  20. T Campbell says:

    Eh… Amy, do we really have to call those “unthemed?” I mean, that term seems pretty interchangeable with “themeless” to me. I’m mulling “beginner’s,” “starter,” “simple,” “Astroturf,” “Tupperware” and “Brand X.”

  21. T Campbell says:

    After thinking this over a bit, I’ve found a place for them in the existing set-up. Look for ‘em in part 5.

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