Questions are a key element in spelling bees. They give you the essential bits of information that you need to piece the word together as if it were a puzzle. Without questions, the bee would become a completely different challenge. Yet so many spellers will receive their word and launch straight into spelling without asking anything, only to misspell the word. Questions not only help you buy time to think, they help you recognize roots, patterns, and word structures that will help you spell correctly. This post series will review each individual question that may be asked, as well as reasons why each question is important.
Question one: language of origin. If you request this, you will most likely be given the name of a language (or multiple languages) from which the word originated. Sometimes you will get an answer like "literary name" or "unknown," which aren't much help. The vast majority of the time, however, you'll get a response such as "Spanish from Latin" or "from Greek parts." So, you ask, why does this help? The answer: patterns. For example, if a word comes from Spanish, then you might consider "j" as an option for the \h\ sound, but if it comes from Polish, then you wouldn't. The language of origin helps spellers to decide how to spell key sounds in the word based on patterns from that language, and without that information, one would be significantly more lost in the maze of the word.
Question two: definition. The meaning of the word. At one point at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee, I received the word "sylvilagus," which I hadn't seen before. I asked for the definition. At some point in this definition was the word "rabbit" or "hare." Since I knew that the root lago- meant rabbit, I was able to figure out that the word contained this root. If I hadn't asked for the definition, I wouldn't have heard the word "rabbit," and I would have gotten 21st place instead of 4th. This applies to other words as well; there is often a word or phrase in the definition that triggers a memory of a part of the word, which is invaluable when every letter counts.
Question three: sentence. Besides sometimes providing comic relief from the tension and pressure of the bee, the sentence helps you understand the word in context instead of just as a standalone collection of letters. This is especially helpful with homonyms. For example, if you wanted the word "their" in a sentence, the sentence might be the person wanted their friend to give them a bag of potato chips. If a person with basic understanding of grammar were given this sentence, then they would know that "there" is not used in the possessive context, and would then know to spell the word "their" instead of the word "there." Although words like "their" are unlikely to come up in higher level spelling bees, the sentence helps reinforce the definition and part of speech in a way that can't easily be done otherwise.
Question four: part of speech. This helps the speller to identify patterns in a word with a specific function. If this seems confusing, allow me to explain. If you received the word "ridiculous," and you weren't sure whether to spell it "ridiculous" or "ridiculus," you'd definitely want to ask for part of speech. Once you found out it functioned as an adjective, you'd know to spell it as the former because you understand that conventionally, adjectives ending with an \uhs\ sound typically are spelled -ous and not just -us. Likewise, a word like "sylvilagus" is one where you'd know to spell it with -us after finding out it was a noun because you knew that nouns don't end in -ous.
I will cover the remainder of the questions (root questions, word repetition, and alternate pronunciation) next week.