â€œJeopardy! is the bane of all quiz shows,â€ 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 youâ€™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 â€œWhat’s the Liberty Bell?â€ instead of just â€œthe Liberty Bell.â€ And then the hosts sigh, snicker, and point out that they are not, in fact, on Jeopardy.
But contestants arenâ€™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. (Thatâ€™s why the show calls them clues, not questions.)
An example clue: â€œA popular exhibit at the Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on this â€˜cornyâ€™ TV showâ€
To win that question, the contestant must respond, â€œWhat is Hee-Haw?â€ Just saying â€œHee-Hawâ€ doesnâ€™t count.
This also means that the clue itself sounds a little odd. Itâ€™s not the way youâ€™d phrase that information in real life, either in conversation or in writing.
It’s perfect for Jeopardy, though. Itâ€™s fluent Jeopardese.
Writers who imitate Jeopardyâ€™s clue structure for their quiz night ignore an important point: that kind of clue is not a question.
Sometimes that doesnâ€™t matter and players follow you anyway. But sometimes, it leaves them asking you for clarification: â€œWhatâ€™s the question?â€ Confuse them enough and theyâ€™ll insert a vulgar intensifier before â€œquestion.â€
This is a question: â€œA popular exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the actual cornfield used on what â€˜cornyâ€™ TV show?â€
This is an even better question: â€œWhat â€˜cornyâ€™ TV show donated its actual cornfield to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where itâ€™s a popular exhibit?â€ (This version is also improved because it can ignore Jeopardyâ€™s space constraints â€” their clues must be short enough to fit on a TV monitor in Korinna font.)
When people ask you, the host, what question youâ€™re asking, theyâ€™re not messing with you. Theyâ€™re genuinely confused. If you read the question out twice and people canâ€™t figure out what youâ€™re asking, you wrote your question poorly.
(Yes, on Jeopardy Alex reads the clues out loud â€” but theyâ€™re also shown written out on the board, and contestants generally respond to that written form.)
Thatâ€™s not really surprising, though, when you bury the lead and donâ€™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. Donâ€™t bury it in the middle. * Start the question (or the key part of it) with a question word. What, who, where, when â€” those are the most common. * Follow the question word as quickly as possible with the kind of information youâ€™re looking for.
Some examples from Ken Jennings, a guy who knows how to write a good trivia question:
â€œWhat is the better-known nickname for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944?â€ â€” people know from word one that the correct answer is a nickname, or a word.
â€œThe Everything Store is a new book profiling what American businessman?â€ â€” This puts the question at the end, but itâ€™s clear that your answer should be the name of an American businessman.
â€œIn 2011, what soda passed Pepsi for the first time to become the country’s second-most popular soft drink?â€ â€” 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 isnâ€™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 youâ€™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 youâ€™re writing for Jeopardy, in which case put in a good word for me because thatâ€™s a dream gig.