30 October 2006

quiz show linguistics

There I was, lamenting the lack of languagey things to blog about, when someone sent me a link to a contestant missing the very first question (which is usually very very easy) during a run of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

If you're familiar with this show, skip the next two paragraphs; otherwise, here's how it works: the contestant needs to answer a series of 4-option multiple choice questions, and with each correct answer, they increase their take-home amount. If the contestant encounters a question they do not want to answer, they can choose to walk away, with their take-home amount as their winnings. If the contestant answers incorrectly, the take-home amount drops to a minimum threshold: $0 through the first five or so questions, $1000 for the next, with $25,000 as the highest threshold. (So answering the $500,000 question incorrectly puts you back down to $25K as your winnings).

Multiple-choice makes this easier than the open-ended questions of other trivia shows (like Jeopardy), but several components to the format make it even easier. First, the first five questions are merely filler, and designed to be can't-miss, apparently just to get the contestant to settle down. Second, the contestant gets 4 "lifelines" to help if they're stuck on a particular question. They can phone a friend (who is allowed to use the internet) and talk for 30 seconds. They can ask the audience, which is polled and the results displayed graphically, and they can "do 50-50", in which two of the incorrect answers are removed, leaving the correct answer and one distractor. After reaching the $25K mark, another lifeline is added: switch the question. Each lifeline may be used no more than once.

OK, people occasionally get tripped up on the easy questions. They're nervous, or the writers inadvertently make a question harder than they meant to. It happens. The clip below illustrates just such a scenario, with a grammar question as the stumbling block. And not a question that relies on any shady misunderstanding of the rules of language; no, it's just a simple question about grammatical terminology.

By the way, please don't think I'm just trying to deride the contestant - my point is something else, although he does show a few lapses in judgement. As an additional note, the quality of the video is poor - recorded with a handheld camcorder pointed at a TV screen. As bonus, we get to hear the snide commentary of the viewer holding the camcorder.

Sigh. If you didn't feel like watch, I'll summarize; otherwise, let's recap. This question is in the easy sequence - you can tell by the amount at stake and by the music (it slows down and becomes more ambient when the contestant reaches $1000).

The question is as follows:

What parts of speech are usually classified as being in the 'active voice' or 'passive voice'?
A - adverbs
B - verbs
C - nouns
D - adjectives

If you have been to piloklok before, you probably know the answer. But you can also imagine that maybe some people don't. In this case, the contestant asked the audience (75% said B, verbs), and admitted he had been leaning towards A, adverbs (most folks would follow the audience at this point). But the contestant used his 50-50 lifeline (hoping A or B would be one of the two dropped answers) and was left, sadly, with A and B. Then he called a friend who, sadly, was no help. So the contestant chose A.

There's a bit of hope emergent in all of this: the producers believed this question was easy, and the audience concurred. I've consciously known about voice since high school Latin class, but til now I have not known whether such knowledge is "easy-question" fodder.

And let the fate of this contestant not shatter that hope - it's some comfort that the choice of incorrect answer was a consequence not just of poor knowledge but also of stubbornness and poor judgement: not following the audience's rec from the lifeline). I guess the real moral is, people who don't know about voice, don't listen.