IMAGINE that you are blind; and I'm describing a car to you:
The car without an engine.
You are unable to see the car, but do you think:
A) The car has an engine
B) The car has no engine
C) Could be both above
OK, now let me rephrase the description:
The car with an engine.
You are still blind, but which of the answers A, B or C is the most accurate?
Now imagine that you're in a treasure hunt; and I am asking you spot a signboard based on this criteria:
Signboard without the letter M
Would you scan the sector for a signboard:
D) Containing the letter M
E) No letter M found thereon
Getting confused already? OK, let me go a little bit further; what if I give you this instruction:
Search for a signboard containing ABC without the letter M
And within that sector, you see 2 signboards containing:
Which of the 2 would you choose? Both F and G contain ABC on them, but F is without M. Would you say F answers the clue perfectly?
Now consider this question from yesterday's hunt:
Q30) Unacceptable service without a thousand at a district.
The first time I read this clue, I saw in my mind a signboard containing something which can fit the cryptic requirement of "Unacceptable service", and that something must be without the letter M (or K). Then that is followed by something which answers "at a district".
That then was the basic search criteria within that very long sector with so many signboards. But I thought it wasn't that bad, because all I had to do was to focus only on the signboards without the letter M (or K) on them. But as I was scanning through that sector, I saw:
ACME @ SOHO
That "@ SOHO" attracted my attention because I thought it could satisfy "at a district". But now we have a problem; ACME contains the M (thousand), whereas the clue clearly says "without a thousand".
Since I was running out of time, I texted this signboard to my team mate anyway on the strength of "@ SOHO". But I was almost certain this was the intended answer. I did not know that my team mate had by then submitted our answer sheet, which was a shame because this answer turned out to be the required one, even though it obviously did not answer the question!
Let us now find out what really happened here.
I have seen similar hunt questions in the past, where "without" actually meant "with"! The setter had intended to instruct the hunters to look for a board containing something that when the letter M is removed therefrom, we are left with something which agrees with "Unacceptable service". The problem is that the sentence does not actually say so!
I have discussed this problem in the past; a possible improvement is something like this:
Unacceptable service if without a thousand at a district.
Now there can be no mistaking the intention of the setter. Because we have all heard of the basic rule of cryptic clueing before:
You may not mean what you say; but you must say what you mean.
In this clue, the setter did not mean what he said. So I suppose he has satisfied the first part of the rule. But did he say what he mean? I did not think he did, so in my opinion he has failed to observe the second rule of cryptic clueing! And it's for this reason that I think the setter has failed in this particular case.