The Official Final Jeopardy Spelling Rules [UPDATED]

I noticed I was getting a bump in search engine traffic for people who were looking for the spelling rules to Final Jeopardy. jeopardy21_2013_floatingNo doubt, this is in part because there was a small bit about the incident on The Today Show this morning. When I wrote about some of the implications for whether they should have given the contestant the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t include the official final jeopardy spelling rules. At the time, I was merely reflecting in hypothetical, but with people searching for the official rules, it made me wonder just what they rules said about spelling in Final Jeopardy.

If you know me, you know that I’m really good at finding things on the Internet. After doing a couple of cursory google searches (Final Jeopardy Rules, Official Final Jeopardy Rules, Official Jeopardy Rules), I was surprised that I couldn’t find them. Sometimes, the site that hosts a document like this doesn’t do a good job of using keywords. So, I thought I’d poke around the official Jeopardy site — nothing.

After some more derivations of “Rules of Jeopardy,” I was beginning to think that maybe the rules aren’t online. I thought that maybe the contestants were handed a paper copy that they signed before going on the show and that document wasn’t online. Having never been a contestant on Jeopardy (though I’d like to be some time!) I couldn’t confirm whether this was true. However, given that it’s a game show, I’m sure they signed something before going on the show. Regardless, I didn’t have access to that document.

When I was poking around the Jeopardy site, I noticed there was a message board for Jeopardy. While not an official source, I thought that there might be some discussion of what had happened on the show last week (EmancipTation Proclamation) in the context of the rules. After reading through some of the messages on the thread talking about it, I realized that it could take a while. Before reading through that thread, I noticed a different thread that was directing everyone to the 22-page thread talking about what happened because it had “several clear explanations” as to why the judges had to rule the way that they did.

After reading the 22-page thread — the majority of which were people who registered for the forum simply to complain about the ruling — there were some interesting anecdotes. For instance, did you know that this misspelling incident has happened on Final Jeopardy in the past? In an episode that aired on June 6, 2007, there was a clue that was looking for the response: “Sargasso Sea.” The person in the lead (going into Final Jeopardy), however, misspelled his response. He wrote, “SarAgasso Sea.” As you can see in the video below, the judges ruled the same way they did for EmancipTation:

As this really didn’t answer my question about the “official rules,” I thought I’d do a Site Search of the message board to see if I could find the rules. I used some of those keywords from earlier and like before, didn’t find anything official. Although, this was an interesting entry [Emphasis Added]:

I have no official source for this, but from what I’ve heard from various people over the years, there is no official written set of rules that the judges are required to abide by. It has been mentioned that this could be done for liability purposes, because if the judges were to make a ruling that went against their written rules, a player could potentially sue them, or something like that. I believe that in the contestant paperwork, all players must sign something agreeing that all judges’ decisions are final. There may be some general guidelines for acceptable responses in this paperwork, but they probably don’t cover all possible scenarios, and the judges’ decision will always be final. While they do have appeal processes, and I presume that they work to the best of their ability to ensure that no contestant is treated unfairly, I’m sure there have been instances of players leaving the show feeling that they were in some way treated unfairly due to an unfortunate judges ruling either against them, or in favor of a competing player.

There are a lot of little rules of thumb that longtime viewers of the show have been able to piece together over the years, and most times the show’s rulings seem pretty consistent with past precedents. It is generally accepted that leading articles can be omitted and still be ruled correct, as in “Grapes of Wrath” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. However, incorrect or missing articles within a title will lead to an incorrect ruling, such as “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Gone With Wind”. Those may be poor examples, but I can’t really think of any good ones at the moment.

As to Veteran Affairs or Veterans Affairs, I think it is usually the case that when dealing with something that has an official title, the wording must be exact, and in many cases the inclusion or exclusion of something as small as an “s” could indeed lead to an incorrect ruling.

As to the consonant/vowel distinction, the general rule is that when giving a response verbally, you don’t have to pronounce it correctly, but you must at least give something that could be a possible phonetic pronunciation of the correct spelling. Generally this means that you could change vowel sounds, but you need to use the correct consonants, otherwise what you’ve said does not appear to be the same word as the intended correct response. Without examples in front of me this is hard to explain. It often comes up in cases of foreign words, or names of famous people that someone has seen in writing many times, but rarely has heard spoken aloud.

In Final Jeopardy, the rules are similar, but the opposite is true. While your spelling can be incorrect, what you have spelled should be possible to pronounce in the same way as the intended correct response. Normally if you change a consonant, something is not going to be pronounced the same way, while changing vowels could still lead to similar pronunciation. One recent exception to this rule was when Franz Liszt was the correct FJ response, and one contestant responded with “Who is Lizt”. While she was missing a vowel, the “s” and “z” sounds in Liszt sort of blend together, so the judges likely decided that “Lizt” or “Lizst” would be accepted. I don’t know if they would have accepted “List”. They may also have accepted something like “Lieszt” or “Leeszt”, as there is probably a lot of wiggle room in dealing with vowel sounds of foreign names like this.

While to my knowledge there is no list compiled on the web of all Jeopardy! ruling precedents, there are plenty of diehard fans of the show, and many seem to have near-photographic memories of these kinds of things, so you should always feel free to ask any ruling questions on this board or at the jboard. It has been my experience that Jeopardy! fans are always more than willing to help.

We can apply some of what this commenter said to the two examples. Adding the ‘T’ to Emancipation does change the pronunciation. Similarly, the ‘A’ in Sargasso does change the pronunciation. I know that this probably won’t satisfy many people who think that the contestant should have been given the benefit of the doubt, but I hope this will shed a little more light on the process (at least perceived) that judges use to make rulings on spelling in Final Jeopardy.


So, maybe what this commenter is saying is true — maybe there aren’t any official rules. If there are official rules, they’re not readily available on the Internet. I can imagine that with what’s happened over the last week, some journalist/reporter would have likely emailed the producers of Jeopardy to ask about the official rules and I haven’t seen any articles recently about official rules. For now, I suppose this comment from a message board will have to suffice.

UPDATE: Remember Ken Jennings? Probably the most prolific Jeopardy player — ever. I came across something that Jennings said about what happened last week with EmancipTation. As you’ll see, it seems to be in line with what I found earlier on the message board:

Jeopardy! record-maker and Parade columnist Ken Jennings agrees that the ruling, however frustrating, was fair. “I feel bad for Thomas, of course,” he told “But the unwritten rule on Jeopardy! has always been that your Final Jeopardy answer doesn’t have to be spelled right, but it has to be the same phonetically as the right answer. If he’d spelled it ‘Emansipation’ or even ‘Immancipation,’ he probably would have been okay,” Jennings explained. “I once spelled Grenada as ‘Granada’ and Alex let it slide. But add a new consonant sound, like Thomas did, and that’s ball game.”

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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    1. There was a misspelling, no doubt, but the misspelling didn’t change the phonetics. He wrote ShepErd, but the right answer was ShepArd. As Ken Jennings and the people on the message board said, misspellings seem to be okay, so long as there isn’t a phonetic change.


      1. Sorry, that is incorrect, Jeremiah. He wrote “SHEPHERD”. Not only did he change the “a” to an “e”, but he added an “h”, which would change the pronunciation, assuming one speaks properly.


    1. VUR-JIN-UH vs. VUR-JIN-YA. Seems pretty close to me. I don’t know that they’re same, but if I were forced to answer, I’d say that the missing “I” in this case is closer than the extra “T” from last week.


      1. What a load of crap. The answer was RIGHT. All this over an extra t? So now we have a game show host who has become so heartless as to crush and humiliate a child on national TV and all a blogger can think to do is compare this child with adult spelling errors? Sickening.


      2. I hear your displeasure. Many of the posts I read on the thread on the Jeopardy message board echoed your sentiment.

        As for your point about a blogger comparing child/adult spelling errors… I’m simply trying to provide some context for helping to understand why the judges ruled the way that they did.


      3. Why would you pronounce Virgina as “VUR-JIN-UH”? In all seriousness, how would pronounce Vagina? I am not being facetious.


    1. This one certainly seems to run counter to some of the things we’ve seen in previous examples. I suppose that one could argue that this example might fall under some ‘handwriting clause.’ It looks like you can make out J-E-F-F-E-R-S-O… and maybe — MAYBE — you could argue that the curve of the question mark is actually an “N.”


      1. You could also argue that the extra “t” in Emancipation was a stray line that had been crossed out to indicate that it was not intended to be there.


  1. Regarding pronunciation, I have seen a contestant disqualified for leaving out the U sound in “Liliuokalani” – which word Alex Trebek himself then failed to correctly pronounce.


  2. If Jeopardy judges always ruled spelling mistakes wrong, then I would have no problem with this ruling. But past precedent shows that they accepted misspellings, and the kid clearly knew the answer.


    1. Right, some misspellings will cost you, while others won’t. As has been talked about, if the misspelling changes the phonetics of the word, it appears as though that’s what gets the contestant in trouble.


  3. So- There are no real rules, it is subject to the judges interpretations. As you interpret it, or me, or anyone else. Interpreting things one way or the other, with no written rules, is the real issue, then. Nice, really nice.
    I would think that Jeopardy, after this, should see the need to come up with a set of rules that are written down, and that each contestant will see, to go along with the statement that “The Judges rulings will be final.”


    1. I don’t know that there are (and I don’t know that there aren’t) “real rules.” Given that there’s money involved, I’d be thoroughly shocked if there weren’t some sort of waiver/contract that the contestants sign before they go on the show.

      There could very well be rules that they do sign, but it’s impossible to account for everything.


  4. First of all Alex doesn’t make the decision. he is only conveying what he hears from the judges in his earpiece, so I see no blame for him. Second of all how can it be cheating when the outcome in place and prize was not any different. He still would have finished in second place and he still would have won $2000. His parents are doing him a disservice to let him believe he was “cheated”.


  5. I would say that is why they have judges and that is why their decisions are final. End of story. That being said, life isn’t always fair and slathering the internet with this kid’s whining about being cheated isn’t doing him any good. The parents are using the “if you say it loud enough and often enough and it’s picked up and spread by the media then it must be true” technique. It’s worked for others but not this time….I hope. Thanks for sharing your information about the spelling rules. That was interesting.


  6. so.., all of these “holier than thou” spelling afficienados [sp] insisting that a mispelling is a mispelling [and, consequently, legitimate to be rejected] are WRONG.
    the word DOESN’T have to spelled correctly.., it only has to phonetically correct.
    izn’t that grate!!!


  7. It happened again today during the Tournament of Champions. The question asked about the last of three latin phrases in the US Constitution. The correct answer would be “What is habeas corpus?” but the winner, and now semi-finalist, misspelled habeas “habeus.” When the answer deals with a written document, like the US Constitution, how can a phonetically correct, but misspelled, response be correct? Moreover, because the answers in Final Jeopardy are written, why should the rule be one that relates to how it might be pronounced?


  8. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. My thought? If you are smart enough to be on Jeopardy, then you should be smart enough to be able to spell correctly. Oral responses? Got it, you pronounced it how you thought it sounded. But written responses? There should be no wiggle room. Spell it right, or get it wrong. No controversy, no “judges decision is final,” no room for interpretation. I can’t tell you how many questions I have missed on college exams because I didn’t spell the answer correctly. Cry about it all you want, but that should be one of the few written down, hard-and-fast rules. Call me heartless, just my two cents.


  9. In statement elsewhere, Mr. Trebek has stated the players are thoroughly briefed as to the rules prior to the start of the game. If this is the case, somewhere, someplace some writing must exist that spells out the official rules so the players can be briefed. Moreover, anyone can sue anyone at any time over any thing. The idea that not having the rules written down some place would avoid a lawsuit is specious. If they rules aren’t written down, someone has to know what they are and they could be compelled to testify as to what they are. If the rules are known certain enough to brief the players as to what they are, then someone can also supply that information to a court. The “avoid a lawsuit” answer is just plain silly.


  10. Thanks for a great article and interesting comments. Another example tonight–5-18-15 on Jeopardy. Final Jeopardy question was about an animated film character. The answer was “Pocahontas.” The only “correct” answer came from the woman who had the least money and she spelled it “Pocahantas.” Her bet was added to her score. No big deal, but seems to validate the theory of vowels can be incorrect, but consonants need to be correct. Still think it was a TERRIBLE choice of a question to have young students have to spell out “Emancipation Proclamation” under pressure and in 30 seconds–and then to have the “victim” be a student be from Newtown, CT so recently after the tragedy. Hope a few heads rolled or they learned something.


    1. Well, if you had known that they have had those rules in place for kids and adults alike ever since it hit the airwaves in 1964, you would be singing a different tune. Thanks for contributing to Pissed About A Question, though. C:


  11. iI have noticed several bad calls over the years,What 2 presidents changes their names,(actually 3),they said king was a pronoun,etc


  12. Two rules that should be enforced consistently. 1) Each letter must be legible to all the judges so there is absolutely no question 2) Each word must be spelled correctly. Any violation of either of these rules by the judges causes the show to lose credibility with its audience.


  13. I remember commenting on the issue on JEOPARDY!’s Facebook page, but my posts have since been deleted by incompetent Facebook moderators. My comment went something like this, going all You Don’t Know Jack on both Thomas Hurley III and his supports who… well, don’t know jack about the rules…
    Okay, this EXTREMELY Pissed About A Question comes from Jamie W. [real name substituted for security reasons] concerning the ‘Emanciptation Proclamation’ incident you just saw on 2013/07/31. And Jamie W. writes…
    “Thomas Hurley III’s FJ [Final JEOPARDY!] response of ‘Emanciptation Proclamation’ is correct, and yet the judges penalize him for misspelling it? I have seen moments on Jeopardy [sic] where adult contestants did stuff like Hurley did, and they don’t take a hit score-wise. Please look into this.”
    Well, Jamie W., I DID look into it [Milo “Meditterean Sea” Dochow, Toho “Saragasso Sea” Soma, etc.]. And guess what?
    Which of the following is NOT true about Final JEOPARDY!
    1.) It’s a spelling bee.<<<
    2.) Phonetics must remain unchanged.
    3.) You must respond in the form of a question.
    4.) You can wager none, any, or all of your winnings.
    According to Final JEOPARDY! rules, misspellings are okay so long as the word's/words' phonetics remain unchanged, the minimum wager is $0, the maximum wager is whatever you have in your score, contestants in a deficit/negative situation cannot participate (fun fact: the Fleming run had at least one instance where all three contestants finished in the red after Double JEOPARDY!), and, as always, your response MUST BE IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION. A spelling bee Final JEOPARDY! is not, except when and if there is a category named SPELLING BEE. That also explains why Thomas Hurley III lost $MMM, so STOP WRITING IN, PEOPLE. YOU'RE WRONG.


  14. I guess if you went to a school that allowed the use of ebonics instead of proper English, you probably aren’t going to be the next Jeopardy champion.


  15. According to my English Lessons in Elementary School a long time ago—Teachers’ Tournament should have this apostrophe .


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