Right Answer, Wrong Spelling

A Connecticut boy says Jeopardy! cheated him because of a spelling error

August 05, 2013

Thomas Hurley III provides his answer for the Final Jeopardy question on Wednesday, July 31. Hurley gave the correct answer, but misspelled "Emancipation."

Anyone can spell a word incorrectly. Most of the time, there are no major consequences. But for 12-year-old Thomas Hurley III of Connecticut, a spelling error cost him a correct answer on the popular TV game show Jeopardy! The eighth-grader now says he was cheated.  

Hurley appeared during the show’s annual Kids Week, which was filmed in February. His episode aired last Wednesday. For the Final Jeopardy question, Hurley and his fellow contestants were asked, “Abraham Lincoln called this document, which took effect in 1863, ‘a fit and necessary war measure.’”

Hurley knew the answer: the Emancipation Proclamation. But when writing it, he added an extra “t,” spelling “Emanciptation.” The show’s host Alex Trebek told the boy he “misspelled it badly” and that “the judges are ruling against you.”

Hurley bet $3,000 of his $9,600 in winnings on the answer. He finished in second place, leaving with $2,000.

"I was pretty upset that I was cheated out of the final Jeopardy! question," he told The News-Times of Danbury, AP reported. "It was just a spelling error."

Skyler Hornback is all smiles after breaking the record for highest one-day total in Jeopardy! Kids Week history. Hornback took home $66,000.

Skyler Hornback is all smiles after breaking the record for highest one-day total in Jeopardy! Kids Week history. Hornback took home $66,000.

Rules of the Game

The show’s rules state that misspellings are allowed as long as they do not change the pronunciation of the word. The key is that all answers must be phonetically correct, and the extra “t” in “emanciptation” changed the word’s pronunciation. All contestants are informed of the rules before the game begins.

Even if he had spelled the word correctly, Hurley would not have won. Fellow 12-year-old Skyler Hornback, a seventh-grader from Kentucky, finished far ahead, and even set the all-time record for kids on Jeopardy! with $66,600 in winnings. Hornback’s victory was also the third-largest one-day total in the game's history.

Audience Outcry

Since the show aired, viewers have turned to social media to voice their opinions. Thousands of comments have been posted on the show’s Facebook page, and many people have tweeted about the decision.

Some have expressed sympathy for Hurley, saying that Trebek was too hard on the boy or declaring that spelling should not count.

Others have defended the show. One commenter, Elijah Z. Granet, posted on Facebook that he appeared on Jeopardy! Kids Week when he was younger.

“I won Kid's Jeopardy! on the [answer] ‘What is Finding Nemo?’” Granet wrote. “Had I written ‘What is Finding Neemo?’, I would still have won. Had I written ‘What is Finding Namo?’, I would have lost. The rules of Jeopardy! are very clear.”

Hurley’s parents say the ruling was a surprise. His mother Suzanne said her son was "a little stunned" by the loss. "He felt embarrassed," she told the News-Times. "It was hard to watch."

Jeopardy! producers stand by their decision.

"If Jeopardy! were to give credit for an incorrect response (however minor), the show would effectively penalize the other players. We love presenting young people as contestants on our show, and make every effort to be fair and consistent in their treatment,” the show’s producers said in an email to AP.

Should Thomas Hurley’s answer have been judged correct even with the misspelled word?
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