Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Answers Must Be in the Form of the Right Question

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2004

After reading in the paper about the Ken Jennings’s million-dollar winning streak on Jeopardy, I decided to tune in to see if a linguistic complaint I had about the show still applied.  It did.
 
Stories about this show like to make a big deal of its unique premise:  Instead of having contestants answer trivia questions, the host gives them the answer, and then they have to provide the corresponding question!  What a concept! 
 
Actually, it’s a fun idea, when it’s being done (well, was being done) by Johnny Carson as Karnak the Magnificent.  But on Jeopardy, they just don’t follow through with it.  Sure, they insist on the answers being in the form of a question, but they don’t seem to care whether the questions the contestants come up with could actually be answered by the answer on the blue screen.  No matter what answer is presented, the contestants’ questions always begin with what is or who is.  Never any verb other than is, and never any of the other wh words that English provides.
 
To give one of the more egregious examples I saw last night, the category was anagrams of place names, and the answer was “Down under barn race.”  The contestant said, “What is Canberra?” and got credit.  Now hold on a minute.  If someone asked me “What is Canberra?” and I said, “Oh, you know, down under barn race!”, they’d think I had some kind of aphasia.  What the contestant should have said is, “What is an anagram for Canberra?”  Even then, only the second half of the answer “Down under barn race” works.
 
I wonder what the game would be like if the producers actually insisted on questions that truly corresponded to the answers.  I can see it now… the category is tourist attractions, for 100…

Alex:  This national monument, home to thousands of Jurassic dinosaur bones, is located on the Utah-Colorado border.  Lenny?
 
Lenny:  What is Dinosaur National Monument?
 
Alex:  I’m sorry, that’s incorrect.  Neal?
 
Neal:  Where is Dinosaur National Monument located? 
Alex:  Correct.

Later, in the Double Jeopardy round…

Alex:  On August 28, 1963, this man gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Rudy?
 
Rudy:  Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?
 
Alex:  Sorry, wrong question.  Neal?
 
Neal:  When did Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech? 
 
Alex:  That’s correct, for $200.

And the next day, when I’m the returning champion… 

Alex: On a popular reality program, this man is known for dismissing contestants with a unique hand gesture and the words, “You’re fired.” Maria?
 
Maria: Who is Donald Trump? Wait! I mean, uh, how–
 
Alex: I’m sorry, we have to go with your first answer, and that’s incorrect. Neal?
 
Neal: How does Donald Trump dismiss contestants on The Apprentice?
 
Alex: Correct! Neal is in the lead with $6000.

And for the Final Jeopardy answer…

Alex: This flightless bird is believed to have crossed the road in order to get to the other side. Let’s see what Kaitlyn wrote.
 
Kaitlyn: Why is the chicken?
 
Alex: (Can we accept that?) No, I’m sorry. Let’s see what Neal wrote.
 
Neal: Why did the chicken cross the road?
 
Alex: Correct. You were so close Kaitlyn, but as you know, the questions must be syntactically well-formed. 

…yeah, that’d be pretty cool.
 
Well yes, formulating an appropriate question would be much harder than just tacking on Who is or What is to your response, but wasn’t that the whole point of the questions-as-answers setup? The way they do it now, it’s just a requirement that the contestants say the magic words before they give their response. If that’s all the producers want, they might as well just have the contestants preface every response with “Mother may I?” or “Please, sir.”

17 Responses to “Answers Must Be in the Form of the Right Question”

  1. codeman38 said

    I know I read somewhere– I think it was in The Jeopardy Book, but I can’t be certain– that they actually originally tried it where contestants were required to phrase their answer in the form of the proper question. It ended up being so much trouble for contestants to phrase the questions properly that they couldn’t actually get anything done in time (this was when broadcasts were still live), so they finally just gave up and accepted any question…

  2. Anonymous said

    Yes, it’s from Merv Griffin’s introduction to the Jeopardy Book:

    “What happened in out early run-throughs was the answer-question reverse led to great fun. For example, if the question was “Island that sold for twenty-four dollars,” the contestant often came up with “Where is Manhattan?”; we’d ask for a rephrasing and get “How is Manhattan?” No. “Who is Manhattan?” It became funny, in the small office where we did the run-throughs, listening to contestants arm-wrestle the language, trying to phrase the response in the form of a question. Since the networks were queasy about the quiz scandals, the idea of a humorous question-answer show appealed to them.

    “As soon as we put Jeopardy! on its legs, however, I realized it was unfair and boring to badger the contestant about being grammatically correct for every question. We were getting only twenty answers into a game, because the contestants spent their entire time trying to phrase the question corectly. We weren’t ruling them wrong, we played with them until they got it right, but that idea went out the window. The show needed to be hard-edged and fast-paced if it was to endure, and it evolved in that direction.”

  3. Neal said

    Thanks for the history, codeman and anonymous. I guess they tried after all. But still, if it was such a problem making the questions work, I’d say that was grounds enough to scrap the idea, rather than implement it in the dumb form it’s in now.

  4. Anonymous said

    Not necessarily. The correct “question” can indeed be “who is MLK, Jr?” or rather “who was..”

    If the “answer” was simply “On August 28, 1963” then the proper “question” is “when did..”? But the unknown in the “answer” is “this man”,so the “who” question can be right. It’s a very clumsy way to answer a “who is/was” question but it is a possible answer to a “who is/was” question.

    Matthew Hogan

    Alex: On August 28, 1963, this man gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rudy?

    Rudy: Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?

    Alex: Sorry, wrong question. Neal?

    Neal: When did Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech?

  5. I’ve always wondered just how incorrect the questions could be. Like, if the answer were:
    “This country gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty”

    Could I answer:
    “What the heck is wrong with France?” or “Why do I hate France?” or “How can we get all the damned liberals to just move to France?” Can I use any question I want, so long as it contains the answer somewhere in it? 🙂

  6. Spoons said

    Ditto w/Matthew Hogan said. If you really want to be anal (and I think you do), then the some of the Jeopardy questions are correct.

    If someone asked, “Where is Dinosaur National Monument located?” then answering, “This national monument, home to thousands of Jurassic dinosaur bones, is located on the Utah-Colorado border,” would be redundant and stupid. But if someone asked, “What is the Dinosaur National Monument,” then the answer makes perfect sense.

    Of course, if we’re going to be that anal (not that there’s anything wrong with that), then Cliff Clavin should have won Final Jeopardy:

    A: “Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz, Lucille LeSueur”
    Q: Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?

  7. Anonymous said

    Reminds me of the Cheers episode where Cliff was a Jeopardy Contestant. The Final Jeopardy Answer was in the form, “Their real names are _____, _____, and _____.” The idea was to identify the more famous names the people were known as. I’m pretty sure one of them was Archibald Macleish/Cary Grant. The question they wanted was “Who are _____, _____ and Cary Grant,” or as you would prefer, “What were the original names of etc.” Cliff could not identify the names, and wrote “Who are 3 people who have never been in my kitchen” and insisted that he technically correct.

  8. Anonymous said

    Of course, they could get silly. The answer could be “The One Ring of Sauron”, and the question could be “What have I got in my pocket?”

  9. Anonymous said

    Slightly different direction, on “Win Ben Stein’s Money” a few years ago, they had the “Jeopardy Slap” for contestants who accidentally threw a “what is” in front of their trivia answers.

    So how about having Trebek cross the stage and just sock a player who uses incorrect grammar, grant the points (since they got it right in the main) and continue with the show? Same pace, more violence. Ratings bonanza!

  10. Anonymous said

    Jeez, people. Not one of you has taken into account that the answer, and the contestant’s question, are both informed by the question’s category. “Down under barn race” is not presented in a vacuum; it appears under the category “anagrams of place names.” Were the answer presented in a vacuum, there could be NO correct question because the answer would be nonsense; thus any question designed to elicit that answer would also necessarily be nonsense.* But in the context of “anagrams of place names,” the question “what is Canberra?” is a precisely correct response to the answer “down under barn race” — both factually (that is, it “truly correspond[s] to the answer[]”) and syntactically (that is, when the answer is read in the context of the category in which it appears — e.g., “The anagram of a ‘down under’ place name is ‘barn race'” — “What is Canberra” is a perfectly correct question).

    Bob
    Just Another L.A. Lawyer

    *OK, OK; I supposed “what is eider?” would elicit this answer, if one were to interpret “down” as “soft feathers growing on the belly” and “barn race” as “the species of something that lives in a barn, specifically a type of duck.” But only those who spend their lives solving cryptic crossword puzzles (and who are therefore assigned to the third circle of Hades) would come up with that. And what does that say about ME?

  11. Anonymous said

    I prefer to live in a world- a magical, fairy-tale world- in which “Why a duck?” is a proper, well-formed query. Even without a sentence preceding it containing the word ‘duck.’

  12. Anonymous said

    I started to write a comment on this post, but it got long enough that I ended up posting it over on my blog instead.

  13. Anonymous said

    But still, if it was such a problem making the questions work, I’d say that was grounds enough to scrap the idea, rather than implement it in the dumb form it’s in now.Are you serious? You’re truly so bothered by this that you’d rather the show didn’t exist? Then why do you watch it?

  14. Anonymous said

    man you people suck you have no awnsers man i’m pist i needed awnsers there’s only crap

  15. Anonymous said

    Well look at it this way, Jeopardy is a completely original series and immensely popular. Those are just the simple rules of the game, but are intimidating for those weak of mind.

  16. Jeffery said

    Do you have any video of that? I’d love to find out more details.

  17. What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable knowledge on the topic of unpredicted feelings.

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