CTS #15: The Quote Crossword

If long entries are, in general, tougher to get than short entries, run-ons ramp up the difficulty by expressing one idea that runs on past the usual allotments for such ideas. The quote, the improv and the riddle all have an entry that’s simply too grand to fit into just one or two strings of letter blocks. The narrative weaves its clues into an overarching story, and the multi-parter likewise has a theme that’s too big for just one grid.

The quote crossword is probably the most common of these species, although it’s a bit odd that it should be. It would seem like more of a challenge to parse an existing quote into the symmetrical or quasi-symmetrical bits that it needs to be sliced into, in order to fit a standard crossword grid. Admittedly,
Alex Boisvert’s CrossQuip can make said challenge much, much easier, or let you know that there’s no hope and you should stop wasting your time. Although if you’re feeling really rebellious, read on: we’ll see a few adventurous designers who’ve managed to include a seemingly unsplittable quote in their grids.

Parsing issues aside, you’ve got to find something “guessable” enough for solvers to start feeling a handhold on it one-third of the way through the solve, yet something with a punch at the end of its punchline, preferably on the very last word. Oh, and it’s got to be somewhere between 33 and 80 letters for a 15×15 and 80 to 150 for a 21×21. That’s a lot to demand of something Winston Churchill just pulled out of his butt rather than admit he was an alcoholic.

But crossword constructors aren’t all poets and comedians, and many of them prefer to stand on the shoulders of giants. Quotes carry the authority of their speakers, and most constructor names– excluding Bill Clinton’s– are completely unknown to the general, non-obsessed solver. Even Will Shortz is D-list, as truly famous people go. Good enough for a guest appearance on How I Met Your Mother, but we’re pitting him against Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, here.

Still, the crossword fan community usually regards the quote theme a bit… guardedly.

The split quote, for ill or for worse, is one of the most enduring and occasionally endearing genres in crosswords. Yes, at times they’re a little dull (we went over this as most quotes/quips/aphorisms/koans/recipes/etc. go “pfft” not “bang” when they’re done). And I know a lot of solvers aren’t generally thrilled with them as the long entries (for the most part) go unchecked throughout the solving process, and if there’s any “aha” moment, it’s at the “punch line” instead of repeatedly throughout the grid. All are valid points, but, I still think the quote puzzle has its place today, if used sparingly and effectively.

Brendan Emmett Quigley

I’m not a quote-puzzle fan, in general. This one was fine, I suppose. Timely … ish. Can you feel the lukewarmness suffusing this write-up? I can. There’s just not a lot to say about quote puzzles. There’s the quote. It’s a quote, all right. The End.

Rex Parker

I know a lot of people hate quote puzzles. Other people love them. Okay, I’ve never actually heard anyone say they love them. But some people aren’t bothered by them. I kinda like them once in a while. I think the quote puzzles I really like are the ones where I’ve never heard the quote before (so solving it is really satisfying) or when I know the quote really well (so I feel like I’m totally cool and in on the joke). The ones that aren’t so great for me are they ones where I go, “Oh. Yeah. I’ve heard that before. But didn’t really remember it. Because it wasn’t all that funny.”


So we have here a difficult and controversial form. In its traditional execution, even among the editor-tested comics, it has often had as many misses as hits. To demonstrate this, let’s assess a few puzzles from the last two years found by random searching, and assign them scientific, performance-based smiley faces.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” –Brian O’Driscoll [puzzle by Bob Klahn]

There’s a certain beauty to the way this quote’s two halves separate evenly into its six parts in the grid, half for knowledge, half for wisdom. The whole thing doesn’t click until the end but the use of many repeated words and ideas through the quote keep it guessable. Very good. It would be excellent, if not putting your tomatoes into fruit salad weren’t actually kind of a “duh.” :-)

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.” –Henry Kaiser [puzzle by Bruce Venzke]

Another quote that doesn’t come together until the end, and the use of long words makes it moderately guessable (with crossings, of course– nearly all quote puzzles need crossings). Its weakness is that the grid includes HENRY KAISER, a not-all-that-familiar author, and does so in the final theme entry, which really should be the “cymbal crash” of a quote puzzle. A quick Googling confirms he’s a man of many accomplishments, but if I don’t already know him… I don’t care. :-(

Region capture 4“Money is only useful when you get rid of it. It is like the odd card in old maid, the player who is finally left with it has lost.” –Evelyn Waugh [puzzle by Mike Shenk as Judith Seretto, which is not as convincingly female-sounding a name as "Evelyn Waugh"]

Guessable again. But most of its juice has run out by “old maid,” and the novelty of the idea is gone after “get rid of it.” Lengthy quotes like these need to be very very juicy to justify the solver’s investment. Not many of those to be found! :-(

Region capture 8How juicy can juicy get? How about a quote where every word contrasts sharply with both its neighbors?

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” –Noam Chomsky [puzzle by Peter Gordon]. LINGUISTICS and Chomsky’s name round out the fill here, and rather than have a cymbal crash at the end, this classic of semantic nonsense bangs its cymbals constantly from its second word onward. Chomsky’s ideas always were colorful! Er, not that that’s a political endorsement. :-)

Region capture 12Region capture 2

“If you go to Germany and get drunk, at some point you’re going to look up ‘Hitler’ in the phone book.” –Dave Attell

“If you’re at a party with more than five people named Chad, get the fuck out right away.” –Eugene Mirman

Brendan Emmett Quigley’s personal blog shows off a distinctly different flavor of quote, one that’s done some Jell-O shots in its time and giggles at the term “politically incorrect.” (“Chad” is just one of those names, like “Brad” or “Kenneth,” borne by a high percentage of undesirable partygoers.) The words “Chad” and “Hitler” are the biggest cymbal crashes in these sentences, but “fuck” is enough of an additional jolt and close enough to the end that I’ll give it a pass. :-)

Region capture 11“I didn’t realize how good I was with computers until I met my parents.” –Mike Birbiglia

If you think we’re favoring the Quigleys now, wait until we get to the Vector Threes. This one is less “Quigleyan” than the above two, but notable for another reason: it uses bilateral symmetry to divide its quote, which would be indivisible by the standard method. (You can slice 13-letter chunks off either end, but there’s no breaking up that 29-letter lump in the middle.) A more staid, well-behaved quote than Quigley’s other examples, but with a more focused endpoint. :-)

Region capture 17“Not all those who wander are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Daniel Finan cracks the usual “symmetry problem” by combining his quote theme with a Vector Three. He saves his symmetrical division for the quote’s lengthy source, and lets the otherwise indivisible 27-letter quote “wander” through the grid, eventually coming out to the other side. It seems unfair to grade this cross-breed on the same scale as the others, but its beautiful use of a quotation and lack of clues that read “Part 3 of quote” make it an immediate win.

Region capture 12“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” –Linus Pauling

Similarly, Mike Shenk combines his quote with the piecemeal camouflage, changing its requirements, though the new rules are almost as strict. Each word of the quote has to be able to hide within a larger entry, and the overall quote needs a certain length:

Also of interest, though not really a run-on, is the fragmented quote puzzle, more of a subset of the Marian. This Matt Ginsberg example swipes punchlines from seven different sources:

“I used to do drugs. I STILL DO, BUT I USED TO TOO.” — Mitch Hedberg

“The car stopped on a dime. Unfortunately, the dime was IN A PEDESTRIAN’S POCKET.” — Anonymous

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it THROUGH NOT DYING.” — Woody Allen

“Whoever named it necking was A POOR JUDGE OF ANATOMY.” — Groucho Marx

“You know what I hate? Indian givers. NO, I TAKE THAT BACK.” — Emo Philips

“I don’t mean to sound bitter, cold or cruel, but I am SO THAT’S HOW IT COMES OUT.” — Bill Hicks

“I have the heart of a small boy. It IS IN A GLASS JAR ON MY DESK.” — Stephen King

And this Brendan Emmett Quigley (left) and Tyler Hinman (right) use key words from various CHARLIE SHEEN quotes. Quigley goes for brevity and quantity: BRAIN, EARTHWORM, FISTS, A FISHING TERM, WARLOCK, PUSSY, ASSASSINS and DYING. Hinman uses fewer but more intrinsically colorful examples: TIGER / BLOOD, BI-WINNING, ROCK STAR FROM MARS, ADONIS DNA, and EXPLODED BODY, with a riff in the clues on Sheen’s arguably most famous quote:

“I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”

Sometimes there are rewards for breaking the system. The cross-fertilized Finan and Shenk, and the fragmented quote puzzles, contain the ingenuity and surprise that most traditional quote puzzles struggle to provide. On the other hand, the fragmented quote can seem too unfocused, too slapdash, if it doesn’t have a clear theme, and opportunities for cross-fertilization are thin on the ground. Bringing the wisdom of the ages, or the fizziness and self-revelation of pop-cultural sayings, into the grid is an all-around tough gig. That’s what makes it worth trying.

Next week: Cruciverbalists’ wisdom, in their own cross words! Well, theoretically. You’ll see what I mean.

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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5 Responses to CTS #15: The Quote Crossword

  1. Alex says:

    Alex Boisvert’s CrossQuip can make said challenge much, much easier, or let you know that there’s no hope and you should stop wasting your time.

    This isn’t quite true, and this might be a good time to throw out another challenge to the coding crowd. CrossQuip can’t break up a quip like in this Trip Payne puzzle where the author’s name is included. In fact, if you tried to break up that quip without the author, you’d be stuck with a suboptimal eight-letter entry in the middle.

    So here’s the challenge: I would like to modify CrossQuip to be able to include the author’s name at any point in the quip. If no author’s name is given, it should spit out what it currently does. If an author is given, it should try to split up the quip without the author, and then again with the author at every possible position in the quip. It should return all valid possibilities. The difficulty here is that the author’s name has to stand alone in the grid. How would I do this? Pseudo-code is fine. Also, no cash prize this time :(

    If you’re interested, the source code for CrossQuip can be found here.

  2. joon says:

    algorithmically, it’s inelegant but easy: just do a for loop over the word breaks in the quote, and try inserting the author name at that word break. you’d have to check the symmetric string (call it S) and make sure it breaks right, but then you could reuse your existing code twice to break up the rest. if the quote goes A-author-B-S-C, then you could use your existing code on B, and on the concatenation AC (except that you can’t have an odd central answer in this one).

  3. Amy Reynaldo says:

    My favorite riff on the quote theme was Ashish Vengsarkar’s five-part Sunday theme in which [Part 3 of quote] was something like OPRAH’S MAGAZINE, that being a definition of the letter O that is indeed the third part of the word “quote.” What a treat to not really have to tussle with a quote theme after all!

  4. Alex says:

    I don’t understand everything you wrote, joon, but I think I got enough to maybe make it work. I’ll see if I can code that up.

  5. Alex says:

    Okay, I’ve updated CrossQuip. You can all exhale now.

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