Intentional Ambiguity

Intentional ambiguity is a solve path element involving purposefully making crossword clues, trivia questions, or other puzzle-y problem too vague to answer definitively when first looking at them.

Intentional ambiguity is often done by puzzle authors that want to prevent solvers from solving a puzzle without reaching that 'aha' stage, as it adds an extra level of uncertainty that can only be cleared by discovering the connection between the intended answers.

Puzzle Application[edit | edit source]

While ambiguity in clues is often removed in the editing process for fear of errata further down the line, sometimes a puzzle calls for clues or questions that are vague on purpose. The most common situation is when the clues or questions are meant not as the main part of a puzzle but as a check or and ordering for the results of another part of the puzzle. An example would be if a series of clues were single words like 'Animal', 'Color', etc., and elsewhere in the puzzle, something results in the words 'JACKRABBIT' and 'BLUE'. While the clues can be answered, the key is that they're not supposed to be answered by themselves. In this sense, the ambiguity becomes a necessary part of how the puzzle functions, since the clues are not really 'clues' any more.

Another common use of intentionally ambiguous clues is to railroad solvers into working on the more interesting or important part of a puzzle first. The idea is essentially that if solvers see a set of clues or questions they can't answer, they'll give up on them and look at something else. If there's a big, shiny, interesting second part to a puzzle they can look at, they're more likely to look at it rather than stick with the original clues (although this is not a foolproof plan; puzzle solvers can be a stubborn bunch). An extra benefit to this is that, if the shoo-away works, the realization that the work they did away from the clues went towards solving them in the end may be an extra 'aha' moment, if that was not already the core intention.

Ambiguous clues don't have to be all-or-nothing, either. Sometimes, writers just want to provide a light nudge away from focusing on just one avenue of approach. If a puzzle has half solvable clues, and half too-ambiguous ones, as well as another portion with a similar spread of just-right to too-hard content, solvers are more likely to bounce between the two as they solve the puzzle. This is especially effective for puzzles that otherwise have the danger of being solved all in one direction.

Strategy[edit | edit source]

Because of the known, common uses of intentional ambiguity, it's always good to make note of it when it occurs. Writers usually steer solvers away from particular approaches for good reason, whether for the sake of a fun puzzle, or a more efficient solve. With that in mind, ambiguous clues should not take priority in a solve path. Seeing them, especially in large numbers, is a clear sign that the break-in point of a puzzle is elsewhere, and that, while they will become relevant, the clues will not be useful until later.

In rare cases, a puzzle hunt may contain some unintentionally overly-ambiguous clues. It's not really possible to know for certain when a clue is vague on purpose or not, but if it's one clue amongst many unambiguous or otherwise classic crossword clues, chances are it's unintentional.

Notable Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Bugcat (Huntinality 2022) (web) - While not all of the clues are meant to be ambiguous, many of them are vague enough to discourage trying to answer them definitively without the help of the bulk of the puzzle, the animal hybrids. Not only that, but some of the animals themselves are also vague, forcing solvers to go back and forth between the two sources of information.

See Also[edit | edit source]