Jocelyn Adams’s ’15 love for crossword puzzles drove her to explore the linguistics department as a first-year. With a long family tradition of collaboration — and the occasional competition — over the New York Times crosswords, she says she doesn’t know why she hadn’t realized before this fall that crosswords made a natural choice for a thesis project in the department.
Adams will be analyzing crossword clues to determine what linguistic qualities make certain ones more difficult to puzzle out. Using her background in computer science, which is her second major, she plans on searching for clues that are disproportionately represented in the trickier Times’ puzzles and analyzing them for ambiguity, lack of specificity and obscurity. She hypothesizes these qualities will correlate with more difficult puzzles.
Adams’s research is based on the cooperative principle, which essentially functions as a description of how people engage in conversation with one another. When chatting over Sharples brunch, one assumes that one’s conversational partner will provide the proper amount of information needed for comprehension (not to much and not too little), use truthful statements and avoid unnecessary ambiguity. While research exists on how the cooperative principle can be distorted for the purposes of humor, as with sarcasm, Adams will focus on the crossword creator as a “linguistically uncooperative” conversationalist.
Adams’ research may also complement her own puzzle prowess. Although she can already finish most Friday crosswords in the New York Times (they become increasingly difficult throughout the week), identifying the toughest clues might help her pull ahead of her dad when crossword competitions break out over breakfast.
Recommended Readings: 150 Ferocious Crosswords (a collection of New York Times puzzlers); “Five down, Absquatulated: Crossword puzzle clues to how the mind works,” from the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
Clue to Consider: “Split” has been a New York Times crossword clue 96 times for 44 different answers, including “SCRAM”, “HALVE”, “FLED”, “GULF”, and “SUNDAEONABANANA”.