We’ve all been there before: you’re working on the latest New York Times Sunday crossword, and you’re so close to finishing, but you just cannot figure out that last answer! With the internet so close by, it’s tempting to look up that one last answer. Is it cheating to seek out crossword puzzle help, though?
The short answer might come off as a lackluster, “Maybe… probably,” which will make a longer answer more satisfying. This longer answer examines what “help” might mean, the context of crosswords, and varying opinions on the matter.
The Kind of “Help” You’re Looking For
Whether or not it is considered cheating to seek out crossword puzzle help, there sure are a lot of resources to help you do just that. But perhaps there’s a difference between researching the whole answer versus receiving a prompt through a dictionary or a crossword solver. In other words, are you seeking out the answer because you want to gain more knowledge, or just because you want to solve the puzzle?
Most of the crossword solver aids available, like the one above, give you possible answers based on the grid, but offer little extra information. One Across does at least offer a definition of each word, but otherwise it’s hard to see these “tools” as anything other than unauthorized aid.
If you know the answer but don’t know the correct spelling, it might prompt you to decide if crossword puzzles are primarily about finding the answers, about knowing unique words, or both. Some may argue that the other letters in the crossword should help you figure out the correct spelling through context clues. Others would say consulting a resource would improve your spelling.
Additionally, confirming answers is not quite the same. Should you find one of your answers is right, you’ve confirmed what you already knew. Should you find an answer is wrong, it’s not the same as looking up the right answer (unless, of course, you proceed to look up the right answer immediately afterwards).
The Context of the Crossword
First, the obvious out of the way: if you’re solving a crossword for class or for a competition, it’s almost definitely cheating to use crossword puzzle help. The directions given will most likely confirm this. At these moments, crosswords are used as an assessment of ability or knowledge, so seeking that information out elsewhere misrepresents what you know.
Similarly, some people solve crosswords to learn more about a subject or to improve their English. In these cases, looking up answers helps them to achieve their goal, meaning it’s not cheating.
Where it gets sticky is when you solve a crossword for personal reasons. In this case, the difficulty of puzzles might matter. For people who haven’t solved a newspaper-style crossword puzzle before, it may help at first to look up a few answers to find patterns in how crossword puzzles operate. Similarly, reading general guides on solving crossword puzzles may be considered smart instead of cheating.
The quality of the crossword may come into play, too. It’s fair to assume that professionally published puzzles are error-free. Unedited crosswords, however, may pose problems the creators did not see. Needing to look up an answer because of an error may be a different situation.
Before there’s any more hemming and hawing over this question, though, what do the professionals think?
It’s no surprise that opinions vary on this topic. This article more or less agrees with the given assessment above. Other, less professional (but more opinionated) commentary on forums like Reddit suggest that crossword puzzle help and looking up an answer is always cheating. New York Times writer Deb Amlen sums it up best in her article, “It Might Be Cheating”:
So “cheat” away, I say. Puzzles are games, and games are meant to be fun. If we take them too seriously, we’ve lost our sense of play, and that’s not a good thing.
Plus, according to her research, famed New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz has answered this question multiple times to the effect of, “Don’t ask me, I don’t care.” If Will Shortz doesn’t care, why should we?
Kristen Seikaly used her artistic background, research skills, and love for the internet to launch her first blog, Operaversity. Now she uses the skills to connect teachers, parents, and game enthusiasts with Crossword Hobbyist and My Word Search. She studied music at the University of Michigan, and now lives in Philadelphia.