The National Spelling Bee Adjusts Its Rules To Prevent Ties

Top spellers will be required to take a written test on the final evening of the competition

2016 champs
The 2016 Spelling Bee co-champions Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Corning, New York. Scripps National Spelling Bee Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

For the past three years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has ended in a tie, with two whiz kids each claiming a $40,000 prize for their dizzying winning words (Feldenkrais and gesellschaft; nunatak and scherenschnitte; feuilleton and stichomythia, to be precise). As Ian Simpson reports for Reuters, officials have now amended the rules of the Bee, hoping to ensure that one speller—and one speller only—will emerge victorious during future competitions.

According to the new rules, the handful of contestants who make it to 6 p.m. on the final evening of the competition will be required to take a written tiebreaking test. The test consists of 12 spelling words and “12 multiple choice vocabulary items,” the Bee’s website states. If it becomes “mathematically impossible” for a single winner to emerge victorious by 25 rounds, officials will reveal the test scores of the remaining competitors.

“The speller with the highest Tiebreaker Test score will be declared champion,” the site explains. “If, however, there is a tie on the Tiebreaker Test for the highest score, the spellers tying for the highest score will be declared co-champions.”

That means there's still a possibility for a tie, but it makes that scenario less likely. The organization revamped its rules in response to a rather pleasant conundrum: young competitors are getting too good at the spelling game. Prior to 2014, there was only one Spelling Bee tie, which occurred in 1962, according to Ben Nuckols of the Associated Press. But in recent years, kid spellers have been expanding their knowledge of vocabulary and word origins, forcing officials to plumb the dictionary for ever-longer and more difficult words. (The Bee’s list of winning words reflects the extent to which the competition has evolved since its inception in 1925. In 1936, for instance, Jean Trowbridge won for correctly spelling the word “interning,” though the word wouldn't have been as common at the time as it is today.)

Last year, the Bee decided to switch from 25 “championship words” to 25 “championship rounds,” meaning that judges could hurl as many as 75 words at finalists. Officials were also granted permission to adjust the difficulty of those words during the competition. But two winners— 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar and 11-year-old Nihar Janga—nevertheless tied for the championship prize.

Paige Kimble, executive director of the Spelling Bee, tells Nuckols that there "is certainly a point of view that the level of competition has risen to a place where we are likely to see more co-championships unless we further raise the bar."

This year’s Spelling Bee will take place from May 30-June 1, at a convention center outside Washington. The new test will introduce an additional challenge to the already stressful event, but such is the rigorous world of children’s spelling championships, where—theoretically at least—only one speller can rule them all.

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