MGWCC #613

crossword 3:55 
meta 2 days 


hello and welcome to episode #613 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Decision Time”. in this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us we are looking for a frequently faced decision. okay, what are the theme answers? there are six long across answers whose clues have a parenthetical number:

  • {Prefers to, if forced to decide (4)} WOULD SOONER.
  • {Disposal location (4)} KITCHEN SINK.
  • {2010 comedy in which Catherine Keener assuages her guilt by making unusual donations to the homeless (4)} PLEASE GIVE. never heard of it, but the clue made it inferable.
  • {Doing the floor (5)} SWEEPING UP.
  • {Drew attention, as a celebrity might (3)} TURNED HEADS.
  • {Awkwardly phrased prophecy from the Magic 8-Ball (3)} AS I SEE IT, YES. awkwardly phrased is right, but this is indeed one of the standard magic 8-ball responses.

i got the first observation pretty quickly, with a little nudge from the title: the last word of each theme answer is the first word in a common “___ or ___” phrase with its antonym:

  • SINK or SWIM
  • GIVE or TAKE
  • UP or DOWN
  • YES or NO

but what about those parenthetical numbers? they don’t match the lengths of the paired word, nor can you take the nth letter of those words since DOWN doesn’t have 5 letters and NO doesn’t have 3 letters. but i couldn’t see what else to do, so i had to put the puzzle down for a couple of days.

when i came back to it, i had the idea that there might be six more theme answers hidden in the grid, one to match up somehow with each of those implied antonyms. (this is an idea i probably should have had earlier in the process.) and since all six parenthetical numbers were at least 3, they could well be the lengths of each partner answer. once i had the idea, it was not too difficult to find the partner answers. the first one i found was {Mississippi or Colorado, e.g.} RIVER, because DOWNRIVER is a word. but the others were a little trickier to find.

i was distracted for a bit by {Herman’s Hermits lead singer Peter} NOONE, because it looks like NO ONE, and i was looking for something that looked like NO + 3 more letters. but eventually i did find them all (they’re circled in the screenshot above):

  • LATER (4) can take {Brother-in-arms} ALLY to become LATERALLY
  • SWIM (4) can take {Blocking Yao} MING to become SWIMMING (i had spent some time looking for MEET or SUIT first)
  • TAKE (4) can take {From the top} OVER to become TAKEOVER
  • DOWN (5) takes {Mississippi or Colorado, e.g.} RIVER for DOWNRIVER, as i mentioned already
  • TAILS (3) takes {Spare target} PIN to become TAILSPIN
  • NO (3) takes {More than miffed} MAD to become NOMAD

reading off the first letters of the six extra answers in this order gives AM OR PM. i’m not 100% convinced that qualifies as a “frequently faced decision”—i mean, it’s a setting that you might have to specify when setting a clock or putting an appointment into a calendar app, but that’s not quite a “decision” to me, like “should we meet for lunch at 1 am or 1 pm?”—but it certainly clicked well enough based on the title and mechanism.

other than my quibble about the wording of the instructions, this meta was pretty great. it’s basically a two-step meta, but the first step was subtle enough for a week 2 and the second step was a doozy. i can’t remember this kind of mechanism having been done before. and there was variety in the way the concatenations worked: two pairs of words joined as lexical chunks to make a natural compound word (DOWNRIVER, TAKEOVER), two pairs joined where only the first word kept its meaning (SWIMMING, TAILSPIN), and the other two pairs were just charades with no lexical connection (LATERALLY, NOMAD). so matt was really keeping us on our toes!

that’s all the time i’ve got this week. how’d you fare on this one?

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40 Responses to MGWCC #613

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon. 251 correct entries this week.

    One solver said that choosing AM or PM on your phone is more of a “clarification” than a “decision,” which is a fair point, though I don’t think anyone who got to AM OR PM would have hesitated too long over the decision.

    Slightly trappy third step involved, which was noticing that AMORPM is more than a random set of letters. Probably didn’t stop too many people but I know it caught a few, at least for a while.

    • Matthew G. says:

      Yep, it stopped me. I asked for a hint from a kindly soul in the Twitterverse with 20 minutes left on the clock, and got to AMORPM but failed to see that it was not a random string.

    • Maggie W. says:

      Yup, got to Later/Ally, Swim/Ming, etc., almost immediately, then it took me about 2 days to see that AMORPM was meaningful. (I also had the Downriver v. Outboard debate.)

    • Chaddog says:

      I rather liked the wording, if you consider an analog clock “face”, and then needing to append AM or PM to what you see…

  2. Mutman says:

    I saw first step. Then actually picked up ‘SWIMMING’. But I couldn’t make the connection with LATER or TAILS, so I figured I was in a rabbit hole and couldn’t get further.

    Tried to think of a good xx OR yy guess but couldn’t. So submitted IN OR OUT (which comes up more often every day than AM or FM) in desperation.


  3. Dave Bardolph says:

    I was stuck for a bit with DOWN TON until I figured out what the numbers meant and went looking for a 5-letter entry. And I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to anagram AMORPM into something meaningful before the head slap moment arrived.

  4. David Glasser says:

    Oh wow!

    I actually spent a while staring at “LOO MING” wondering if that mattered…

  5. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Is UP OR DOWN really a phrase in the language like the others are? DOWN was certainly the first thing that came to my mind when I thought “Up or ___?”, but it’s hard to give a definition of the phrase that amounts to more than the sum of the words, and listed no dictionaries defining “up or down” as a phrase on its own.

    OneLook does list a Wikipedia entry for “up or down vote”, which is a congressional vote where the only options are to approve or reject the bill being voted on. I suppose that’s enough for “up or down” to pass muster as a component of that phrase, but OneLook actually does list some dictionaries that define a standalone “up or __” phrase: UP OR OUT. I had never heard of that before, but apparently, it’s the name of a corporate policy whereby, if one has not been promoted up after a given period of time, he is booted out of the company.

    With that in mind, I looked for a five-letter entry in the grid that could be appended to OUT to make a word, and found BOARD, giving me the answer AMOBPM.

    • David says:

      Was about to offer the voting sense of the phrase before seeing you’d already come across it. Interestingly, despite being a lawyer at a firm and being very familiar with the “up or out” concept, that phrase (luckily) didn’t occur to me for the meta—even though it didn’t fit here, nice extra catch!

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yes, that was the weakest of the theme entries. I tried but couldn’t find another pair that got me to the R in AM OR PM. There are only about 25 good “X or Y” phrases and none of them worked, so I used “Up or down” intending it to be the voting question. Not great, but I couldn’t think of any way a solver could miss it (never heard of “up and out”) and the other five were all solid so solvers knew they were on the right track.

      • Matthew G. says:

        “Up or down?” is something people say when someone else rushes toward their elevator. Didn’t strike me as not in the language.

        I think my only quibble here is the word “decision” in the title and instructions. Some of these are decisions, such as “heads or tails,” but many are just two different things that can happen. Nobody decides to sink when they could swim. The actual meta mechanism is quite nice.

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        Had you used RIGHT instead of RIVER, that step would have worked with either DOWN or OUT. Of course, not having heard of “up or out”, that couldn’t have been a consideration of yours.

        Another that might have worked is HE OR SHE/riff.

      • Terpagator says:

        I’ve heard “up or down?” asked at the beginning of a tennis match when players determine who serves first. One player spins their racquet, and lets it fall “up or down” with regards to the logo on the butt.

  6. Jon says:

    For a long time I thought both “__ or __” parts/words had to line up with the fill word in the gird. HEAD SPIN & TAIL SPIN; UP RIVER & DOWN RIVER; GIVE OVER & TAKE OVER.

    So I hit an impasse when I could find such fills for SOONER & LATER, SINK & SWIM, and YES & NO. It wasn’t until I saw laterally & swimming that I realized the ending word in the themers wasn’t required for this step. Which was good because for awhile I had “YES YOU & NO YOU” as another one that fit both decision words.

    Quite a fun meta this week & one I was very surprised to figure out in a few hours. I was flying high until Matt’s “2+2=5” WSJ meta stumped me.

  7. jefe says:

    I got the 6 “OR”s right away, and I did see DOWN RIVER and TAILS PIN, but it wasn’t clear I was on the right track. (Not-so-) plausible candidates I had were SWIM SPOT and TAKE (A) KNEE. Chalked it up to coincidence and moved on. Seems arbitrary that some are compound words and others are words that happen to split.

  8. Rachel says:

    Slightly off topic… Can someone please explain the pie crust reference in the clue for vow? Thx

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      It’s from “Mary Poppins.” My wife says it a lot so I probably think it’s more common than it is.

    • john says:

      Back in the days people actually made pie crusts at home. they were notoriously easy to crumble or break before they were filled and had a firmer form. They are supposed to be light and flaky. So a pie-crust promise is one, like the crust, easily broken. I had never actually heard this one but it sounds like many other phrases that likely came about in the early 20th century.

      • MountainManZach says:

        Huh, I always thought it was meant in “only the crust, not the filling” way, as in it’s a shell of a promise. But this makes more sense!

        • C. Y. Hollander says:

          The clip Matt links above explains the analogy a little further: “easily made, easily broken”.

  9. john says:

    I was on to the mechanism as i filled in the secondary parts of the final words from the grid. I had AMO, looked for the R knowing i wanted OR, but then was looking for a 3-letter word beginning with F. See i figured the decision was AM or FM. Gah! Showing my age yet again. :v)

  10. Mark R says:

    Once I saw SWIMMING and figured what the mechanism might be, I entered all the grid answers into a spreadsheet and let Excel do all the dirty work of concatenating strings. (I don’t *think* that’s cheating.) I was amazed that those words, and only those words (plus UPRIVER) popped out amid a sea of gobbledygook. As such I thought this was an impressive puzzle, construction-wise.

  11. cyco says:

    Nice tricky Week 4. I managed to get it a few minutes before the deadline. I stymied myself by accidentally putting down TAIL + SPIN instead of TAILS + PIN, meaning I had AMORSM instead of the correct answer for a while and couldn’t figure out where I had gone wrong.

  12. Thomas says:

    I got the answer late last night, but I still don’t really understand how I was expected to find it. “Combine with another word in the grid to make a new word unrelated to anything” feels like an unmotivated step.

    I found a few clues that could also work for antonyms:
    [Get accustomed (to)] > TAKE
    [Goes after] > TAILS

    That had me stymied for a while, but I like it better as a mechanism.

    • pgw says:

      I’ve never understood the idea that a solving step is subject to criticism because it’s “unmotivated.” The motivation is to find something – anything! – that leads to a pattern that yields a solution. Some puzzles feature steps/patterns/solutions that are hard to find, because they’re supposed to be. You found this one, because you’re a good and persistent solver. Some others didn’t find it (whether because they’re less good, less persistent, or just didn’t happen to think of it.) The puzzle was supposed to be challenging, and it was!

      I also thought of your proposed alternative mechanism (the only pairs I thought worked were TAILS / CHASES and NO / I DON’T), but it didn’t pan out, so I kept looking.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      The parenthetical numbers were all 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s, which was a medium-sized hint to look at fill

  13. Joe says:

    I got no farther than the initial __or__. And that was this morning. Then stared at it. Went to work. Looked at it again at 11:50. Then *buzzer* and no light bulb. First one I’ve missed this year, I think.

  14. Jonesy says:

    I had a similar path to Thomas and I just couldn’t believe it was a red herring.

    Each of the second words fits another clue pretty well
    TAKE = INURE (get accustomed to)
    TAILS = CHASES (goes after)
    NO = VOL (Abbr in a book title) – number or volume
    DOWN = BOARD (clue setting) – admittedly a stretch but in a crossword, the “setting” for a clue is either Across or Down and it’s a weird clue for BOARD.
    SWIM = RIVER – this one definitely a stretch – using the noun definition of swim.
    LATER = never really got one for this one, but those first three were so solid that I really felt like it was the right path. Mental gymnastics were sadly required for DOWN, SWIM, and LATER, though.

    I was thinking that we’d take the parenthetical number in an indexed sense from each of the matching entries (like the D in BOARD and L in VOL) but obviously that was gibberish. Probably also a week 5+ meta!

    • Thomas says:

      I had NO = VOL also, but I decided it was too questionable to mention here! Glad to see I was not alone.

  15. Amanda says:

    How timely. I was awakened in the middle of the night recently because I got the am/pm wrong on an alarm. Maybe if I weren’t so tired, I would have gotten to the second step.

  16. Carol Glasser says:

    I loved the 16 Across clue for “doula.” I had never heard of one until my daughter-in-law hired one to help with the birth of her baby.

  17. Dave says:

    Strangely, my entry point for the second step was “Late rally” (like the stock market might have at the end of the day, or a basketball team might have at the end of a game).

  18. Seth says:

    I got stuck at a great rabbit hole for a bit. Looking around the grid for some 4 letter thing to match with LATER, I saw that the clue for USED, “Now new”, could be changed to “Not now”, which can clue LATER. I really thought this was the solution, and spent a while going through each 3 letter answer looking for other matches. Obviously I didn’t find any, and later saw the real solution.

  19. Jay Livingston says:

    I kept checking Matt’s site ( for the solution but found only the previous week’s post. Is crosswordfiend now the official place for this?

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      An unofficial write-up is posted here as soon as the deadline for submissions passes. Matt posts his own write-up at every Friday, at the same time as he releases the next week’s puzzle.

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