In the popular TV quiz show "Jeopardy!" , I always hear the contestants respond to the question by "What is…", many times in a certain or uncertain tone. (When the key word is a person, they say "Who is…")

Since I started to learn English as a little boy, I have learnt that "What is…" is a question to ask for particular information about something. For instance, "What is that?","What do you have?",etc. Also, "what" can be used to make a suggestion, like "What about…?", or to introduce a clause.

But I can't explain why those contestants use "What is…" that way. And the host, Alex, judges their "What is…" by "that's it" ,"correct","you are right" ,"yes"or "no".

Why don't they say "That is…" ,"What about…,"or "Is that…", which sounds more grammatically correct to me?

Since there are all native speakers in that TV program, I believe they say "what is…" for a reason and this expression must be correct. I do want to know what is the grammar while using "what is…" that way?

  • 1
    Actually you hear the contestants respond to the answer with the corresponding question Although I admit they're a bit contrived...
    – Jim
    Feb 14, 2015 at 7:06

1 Answer 1


This is not a normal English grammar structure.

The rules of Jeopardy require that contestants answer the clue in the form of a question.

I tend to think of it this way... it's a backwards game show. Most game shows require that the host ask a question:

Who was the first president of the United States of America?

And contestants provide the answer:

George Washington.

With Jeopardy, it's the other way around. The host is answering the question while the contestants are asking it...

So, if the clue is:

This man was the first president of the United States of America.

The rules require the response be

Who is George Washington?

If they fail to do this, even if they're technically correct, they lose points.

So, if a contestant answered:

George Washington.

They would be wrong by the rules of the game.

As to their hesitant tone, sometimes they're not completely sure of the answer, so they're guessing.

  • Is there such a rule of this game show? Has there been any contestant in Jeopardy losing points(money) because he failed to obey this rule?
    – dennylv
    Feb 13, 2015 at 3:16
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    It is definitely a very firm rule. It does not happen very often but it does happen occasionally.
    – Catija
    Feb 13, 2015 at 3:18
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    I am so happy to find this funny video: youtube.com/watch?v=-pd7vlYrS2Y
    – dennylv
    Feb 13, 2015 at 3:43
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    @δοῦλος In the last paragraph of his question, the OP stated that he'd like to know what the grammar is when used this way. When I say it's not normal, I mean that it's not something people use outside the game.
    – Catija
    Feb 13, 2015 at 4:09
  • 2
    @denny - In the first round of the show, the judges are a bit more lenient about answering in the form of a question. In the second round (the "Double Jeopardy" round), though, the rule is enforced more strictly. I have seen times where a contestant said the right answer but did not use the correct format. It can have a huge effect on the game. Assume it's a $2000 question, and you say, "George Washington." The host will say, "No." I might ring in and say, "Who is George Washington?" and get the points. Since wrong answers are penalized with a negative score, that would be a $4000 swing.
    – J.R.
    Feb 13, 2015 at 22:14

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