“Jeopardy! is the bane of all quiz shows,” declared Ophira Eisenberg on the fantastic NPR quiz show Ask Me Another.
Why? Because its schtick infects contestants on other shows, who sometimes give answers in the form of a question. (If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Jeopardy! requires contestants to respond to clues in the form of a question.)
Every few episodes of Ask Me Another, someone says something like “What’s the Liberty Bell?” instead of just “the Liberty Bell.” And then the hosts sigh, snicker, and point out that they are not, in fact, on Jeopardy.
But contestants aren’t the only people who lapse into Jeopardese. Quiz writers sometimes use their own version of the jargon. And they should knock it off.
Jeopardy contestants respond in the form of a question, which means that Jeopardy clues are written in the form of an answer. (That’s why the show calls them clues, not questions.)
An example clue: “A popular exhibit at the Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on this ‘corny’ TV show”
To win that question, the contestant must respond, “What is Hee-Haw?” Just saying “Hee-Haw” doesn’t count.
This also means that the clue itself sounds a little odd. It’s not the way you’d phrase that information in real life, either in conversation or in writing.
It’s perfect for Jeopardy, though. It’s fluent Jeopardese.
Writers who imitate Jeopardy’s clue structure for their quiz night ignore an important point: that kind of clue is not a question.
Sometimes that doesn’t matter and players follow you anyway. But sometimes, it leaves them asking you for clarification: “What’s the question?” Confuse them enough and they’ll insert a vulgar intensifier before “question.”
This is a question: “A popular exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on what ‘corny’ TV show?”
This is an even better question: “What ‘corny’ TV show donated its actual cornfield to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where it’s a popular exhibit?” (This version is also improved because it can ignore Jeopardy’s space constraints — their clues must be short enough to fit on a TV monitor in Korinna font.)
When people ask you, the host, what question you’re asking, they’re not messing with you. They’re genuinely confused. If you read the question out twice and people can’t figure out what you’re asking, you wrote your question poorly.
(Yes, on Jeopardy Alex reads the clues out loud — but they’re also shown written out on the board, and contestants generally respond to that written form.)
That’s not really surprising, though, when you bury the lead and don’t use a question word.
In my experience, following these three guidelines produces questions that are easier to understand: * Start or end your question with the thing you want them to fill in. Don’t bury it in the middle. * Start the question (or the key part of it) with a question word. What, who, where, when — those are the most common. * Follow the question word as quickly as possible with the kind of information you’re looking for.
Some examples from Ken Jennings, a guy who knows how to write a good trivia question:
“What is the better-known nickname for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944?” — people know from word one that the correct answer is a nickname, or a word.
“The Everything Store is a new book profiling what American businessman?” — This puts the question at the end, but it’s clear that your answer should be the name of an American businessman.
“In 2011, what soda passed Pepsi for the first time to become the country’s second-most popular soft drink?” — The introductory phrase is short, and an important piece of information. And then you find out that you should be thinking about sodas.
As those questions show, you can vary your syntax a little bit. This isn’t a rigid template. Sometimes supporting bits of information work better before the meat of the question. But the question should sound natural. Players should be puzzled by the information you’re asking for, not by the construction of the question itself.
Quiz hosts: Phrase your questions in the form of a question. Drop the Jeopardese. Unless you’re writing for Jeopardy, in which case put in a good word for me because that’s a dream gig.