Misspelled Jeopardy Question – Thomas Hurley III

Jeopary Alex TrebekThere’s an interesting story in the news about a young teenager who misspelled the Final Jeopardy question which was ruled incorrect.

The young man told a media outlet in his home town that he was “cheated” out of being given credit for answering the final question correctly.

Money is not at stake but something far more important, accuracy. Thomas Hurley III was not going to win the game in any case. He was far behind the teen who won that particular episode and even if his answer had been ruled correct he would have finished in second place and taken home the exact same amount of money.

What happened is fairly straight forward. In Jeopardy, for those of my readers who don’t know the game, the contestants are supplied with an answer and then must formulate the question. In this case the question should have been, “What is the emancipation proclamation?” In Final Jeopardy contestants must write down their answer as opposed to simply saying it as they do the rest of the game. In this case Hurley wrote, “What is the emanciptation proclamation?” Essentially inserting one extra letter.

The host of the show ruled that answer incorrect. The show’s judges later confirmed this decision. Incorrect decisions by Alex Trebek have been overruled in the past.

His feeling about being cheated is, in my opinion, quite interesting. I could not find any official rules about spelling but the show is notoriously strict about these sorts of things. If the answer was “The First President of the United States” a question of “Who was Washington” would be correct as would “Who was G. Washington” but “Who was J. Washington” would be incorrect. The idea being that you must know the answer generally but also fully. Clearly, anyone who put “Who was J. Washington” meant George Washington. They had the essence of the answer correct but not its detail.

The show does accept phonetic spelling of a word, spelling the word the way it sounds. That was not the case here. I don’t watch the show regularly but reading the comments on the story it seems spelling is a judgment call. Some misspelling are accepted and others not, this might not be true, as again, I couldn’t find any official rule about misspellings.

The comments were generally hostile to Hurley calling him entitled and worse.

I see Hurley’s point here but also see the show’s. Hurley knew the right answer and he misspelled the word by inserting a single extra letter. Trebek felt the extra letter was enough to declare the answer incorrect.

But, as always, I cannot simply comment. I must give my opinion as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong even when the difference is relatively narrow. In this case I side with the show. It is their show, their rules, and Trebek is the initial arbiter. If the answer was wrong, in even the most minor way, they have the right to rule it incorrect. However, I do think they should apply that rule across the board. If one spelling mistake is wrong then all spelling mistakes, except intentional phonetic spellings, are wrong.

As for Hurley, I don’t have as much hate and derision as the internet seems to have for him. He knew the answer, misspelled the word very slightly, and certainly wasn’t complaining about money, simply about what was right. In this case I think he misses the point but not by much. It was a minor technicality and in life getting the answer correct is often the most important thing.

If you feel you were cheated then you should speak up. If the situation is investigated by the proper authorities and it is determined you were not cheated, then it’s time to move on with life. I’m sure that’s exactly what Hurley will do.

No harm, no foul. Jeopardy gets some publicity and Hurley gets a lesson about complete accuracy. Not a bad outcome in the end.

Tom Liberman

Language and Ideas

LanguageThe other day I saw a post from my friend Dora the Explora in which her husband misspelled a word on the shopping list and it got me thinking about the importance of language in communication. We use words to express ideas and those words have particular dictionary meaning but also personal meaning. What happens when there is a disconnect between these two meanings?

Let’s say you’re giving a lecture to a group of people about the Hindenburg tragedy of 1937. You correctly use the world “Dirigible” and no one has any idea what you are talking about. You spend valuable minutes of the lecture explaining the meaning of the word. Later you decided to use the word “Blimp” as it is more commonly understood and generally derives the same meaning within the context of your lecture.

I think it’s obvious which of the two scenarios is technically correct but the real question becomes which one is better for the particular situation?

There are two arguments. One argument says that you merely have to get across your idea which is the point of all communication. This argument says that text speech common among tweeters and cell phone users is perfectly acceptable if the audience gets the message. If I had written “SMS language” instead of “text speech” above would you have known what I was talking about? This argument applies to the written word as well. In particular, if my friend wrote the shopping list with the correctly spelled word would her husband have brought home the wrong item or nothing at all in his confusion?

The second argument insists that grammatical correctness is essential to properly conveying the message. If I say “Blimp” instead of “Dirigible” the people in the audience who know the difference between the two will have the wrong idea and those who don’t will use the mistaken word as a synonym for the correct word thus spreading misinformation. Also, when my friend’s husband gets to the store the label on the shelf is going to have the correctly spelled word which might lead to confusion.

Isn’t language fun?

So, what’s the answer? As usual, I’m not going to simply state a bunch of facts and leave it at that. You may have noticed that I tend to have an opinion and I’m not particularly shy about sharing it.

I think we should go for grammatical correctness as much as possible because anything else can lead to confusion. The ideas you express might be misunderstood if you use an incorrectly defined word. I think the person giving the lecture on the Hindenburg tragedy should learn from the first lesson and incorporate the meaning of the word dirigible into the lecture from then on out. The more accurate we are with our words the less chance there is of misunderstanding. And misunderstanding causes more trouble in the world than just about anything else!

If you want to see an example of the havoc a misinterpreted message can do, go here.

I am open to SMS language for words like with, w/, brb (be right back), lol (laugh out loud), 2moro (tomorrow), although they do lose meaning when the person reading the message doesn’t know them. Generally, words like this are more akin to abbreviations and acronyms/initialisms than ill defined mistakes.

Here is a great list of words that are commonly misused. Check them out and see if you use invalid (not illegal) words!

Tom Liberman