Thursday, February 07, 2008

Did you mean it or just say it?

Every once in a while the contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire work as a team. Right now it's wedding week.

The couples usually work well together and the mutual respect is obvious. They talk it out -- they wonder out loud -- they ask each other questions like Have you heard of this? or Should we phone a friend? or Are you sure?

But one eager fellow earlier today kept jumping in and sealing his answer with the magic "final answer" phrase before his fiancée could say anything. I get nervous telling the waiter at a restaurant that I don't need anymore water before checking with Buffy (not because she tells me what to drink but because she commandeers my water and needs the refills even if I don't).

One question asked about the lyrics to a song. I think it was (I've Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo. Because this fellow had played a videogame that mentioned several cities he vaguely remembered that Kalamazoo is in Michigan. His future wife asked skeptically if he was really going to risk the money by making a guess based on a videogame. He disregarded her incredulity and muttered something about learning a lot from them.

He then plowed forward and said "I would say Michigan final answer." The young woman kept smiling and just repeated his answer. Buffy would be stepping on my throat if I ignored her like that. And rightly so.

Well his answer was right and the game kept going. They'll be on again tomorrow. Here's what I wonder:

Saying 'Final' or 'Final answer' is the speech act that locks in the answer on the show. It's what keeps contestants from getting caught by a phrase like I think it might be 'C' when they're just thinking out loud.

When the contestant seems to settle on an answer and even says something as assured as Yes it's 'C'. I'm sure of it. It's definitely 'C' host Meredith Vieira still asks if the answer is final. I've often wondered if a response of Yes to her question would be enough to lock it in.

Usually the contestant just says 'Final' or 'Final answer' with a falling intonation that signifies completion. But what if it's a rising intonation?

Vieira: Is that your final answer?
Contestant: Final?

Or what about the incredulous high-falling intonation as if the suggestion is hard to believe


Would that count?

And what if the contestant says I think I should make that my final answer? Would that close probation? Because saying I think I should is not the same as making it so. Now this is starting to sound like the smart-ass complaints of quasi-peevologists who whenever a speaker says something like I'd like to welcome you all or I'd like to thank you for coming lean over and say nudgingly then why doesn't she?

But when it comes to the rules on a show these ambiguities regarding speech acts can be relevant concern. In everyday speech we communicate without evaluating every technicality. But when playing a game we expressly agree on certain technicalities. Consider the rule of a question form on Jeopardy! The point of the response isn't only to communicate that you know the answer or even prove that you know the answer. You agree to abide by a technical rule that really isn't about communicating anything new. It's not even about communicating that you know the expectations. It wouldn't be enough to say I know I'm supposed to answer in the form of a question but I'm just going to say 'Oberon' anyway.

Johnny-jump-in-there said "I would say Michigan final answer" and it could go either way depending on the scope of "final answer."

If he meant I would say Michigan. And that's my final answer he locked it in. He used the phrase "final answer." (The subjunctive is a common form on the show. For some reason contestants are regularly drawn to the phrase That would be...)

If he meant I would say "Michigan: final answer". He could still have the out because he merely mentioned the phrase "final answer" without using it. The use/mention distinction could be an important one unless the producers have made it clear that any mention will be counted as a use.

But such a rule could go even further. It could go even to phonetics. This would lock in the answer even if the contestant doesn't use or mention the word but articulates the same sounds in another phrase. If the contestant mentions "fine aluminum" the [ faɪnl̩ ] segments could equal a lock.

But that would be just evil.


  1. I think that show (at least when Reg was on it) took "final answer" but not "yes" - and always parsed "I would say Michigan final answer" as "I would say Michigan. Final answer." They'd have to settle on something or people could complain if they got it wrong.

  2. I just wanted you to know that as I was paying close attention to the phonetics of the phrase "fine aluminum," I defaulted to a British prounciation of aluminium.

  3. Hey Mike, just read an article and thought of you. Considering your pet peeve for peevologists, you probably know all about James Kilpatrick, but his latest, "Bobby Fischer's What?", was the first I've read of him. Check it out sometime if you think your blood pressure needs a boost.

  4. Thanks dave-o'

    It does give me a bit of a headache. I don't think I've talked about him but his name is definitely on the radar screen. His biggest weakness (as I have seen) is that he doesn't make much of an argument for his point. He simply says this is the way it should be and gives no evidence that we should believe him.

    It's time for another peevology post.


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