Readers Join the 'Jeopardy!' Debate

When essayist John Gould took on "Jeopardy!," we got letters. Mr. Gould maintained that the first adjective in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" was "a" ("Once upon a midnight dreary...."). The "correct" answer on the TV show was "dreary." (See March 21 Monitor, Page 17, "Mr. Jeopardy and I Have a Bone to Pick.")

We asked readers what they thought. We received letters from attorneys, linguists, Gould fans from coast to coast, two former "Jeopardy!" contestants, and Alex Trebek - Mr. Jeopardy himself. Many had checked several reference books before writing - and included annotated photocopies.

The result? If it were up to Monitor readers, Alex Trebek would have some explaining to do. Three-fifths of the letters supported "a" as the correct answer. (Mr. Trebek is unconvinced: See his reply to Gould below.)

Here are excerpts from some of the letters we received. Many thanks to everyone who wrote.

Give Gould the $50,000

Mr. Gould is absolutely correct, which I point out only because you ask. The vast majority of readers of John Gould would tell you that there really is no reason to ask, because if John says it, it's so!

David E. Phelps

La Conner, Wash.

"A" is an adjective. If it isn't, then it is nothing, and Poe could have left it out of his poem.

Walter A. Schroeder

Columbia, Mo.

"Mr. Jeopardy" clearly owes you $50,000. There's no doubt (not even a doubt) that "a" is an adjective.

Much of the confusion appears to arise, I believe, in that most people are taught that "an," "a," and "the" are "articles" without also being taught that articles are merely limiting adjectives. Perhaps the real culprit is that most people are simply ignorant of the fact that "an" is just another word for "one," a good old Anglo-Saxon "one" at that. If Poe had written (and, of course, he wouldn't have) "one midnight dreary," Mr. Jeopardy might have gotten it right.

Jean-Charles Quinn

Arlington, Va.

Those of us in the language business would call "a" an indefinite pronoun, in this case used as an adjective. Thus it would be classified as adjectival in function but pronoun in form.

Betty Wallace Robinett

State College, Pa.

Professor Emerita of Linguistics

University of Minnesota

But if you are right, then you're wrong

All articles are adjectives. Grammarians have ordained it thus. In consequence, the first adjective in "The Raven" turns out to be the!

Jean Ellen McKeay

Annville, Pa.

Sorry, Mr. Gould: We disagree

As you doubtless know by now, John Gould asked all his fans east of Pemaquid to declare the letter A, normally an indefinite article, an adjective as well.

After scratching around in various dictionaries, Fowler's, the AP stylebook, etc., I conclude it may be - in a very limited, obscure way. I also think its primary usage in the cited work, Poe's "The Raven," is conventional, that is to say, as an article, not as an adjective.

John Teare

Rockport, Maine

Adjectives and articles do not behave the same, so they cannot be considered the same class of words. I am a firm believer in the old adage "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck." I would add that if it doesn't quack like a duck, it's not.

Perhaps articles are more like geese?

Betsy Huffman

Charlottesville, Va.

Having so much enjoyed your column for many years, I am amazed that you should propound such an enormous grammatical error. No! No! "A" cannot be an adjective, used to describe a noun. It is an article.

Kittie LaPointe-Peterson


Two former 'Jeopardy!' contestants comment

As you yourself say, "a" is an article, not an adjective. Adverbs "support," adjectives describe, and articles, well ... articulate. The reason a mistake is unlikely [in "Jeopardy!"] is that not only would the show's writers and producers have to make a mistake, but the contestants would have to let it go as well. As a former "Jeopardy!" contestant (January 1994), I can assure you that this can happen, as I held up a taping for about 15 minutes because I protested an answer.

Barry Rubinowitz

Los Angeles

I am a former "Jeopardy!" contestant (1969!) and a lifelong champion of grammar, though I admit I never made money at either one.

My first reaction to your assertion that the indefinite article, "a," is an adjective was that you were right and that I ought to be writing Mr. Trebek to add my protest to yours. But further reflection (and a conversation with my daughter, a PhD candidate in linguistics) has convinced me of my mistaken position.

Diagramming sentences and hanging "a," "an," and "the" under nouns in the company of adjectives might make us conclude that these words are adjectives. While they do modify to some degree, they cannot fully perform nor act like adjectives (they lack commutativity as well as the ability to be combined with other articles) and are, indeed, in a class of their own - articles.

Katherine Mouser

Lake Katrine, N.Y.

Monitor copy editor's perspective

[Editor's note: David Thomas literally wrote the book on grammar, as far as The Monitor is concerned: "The Christian Science Monitor Editorial Stylebook," that is. We asked him what he thought:]

Sure, "a" shares the role of adjective: to modify, or describe, nouns. But as an article, it doesn't even make the Big Eight - the traditional parts of speech. And yes, a few dictionaries name it "adjective." (Its partner, "the," plays a bit part as adverb, too, as in "the more the merrier.")

Some dictionaries I frequent, including an unabridged one, don't classify "a" (or "an" or "the") as "adj.," but as an article alone, while other words are cordoned off into n., v., adj., adv., pron., prep., conj., and interj. (some sport tag after tag).

Label it what you please, "article" stands out for "a." It has a definite (or indefinite) role all of its own. If only every language came so well equipped.

David Thomas

Gloucester, Mass.


Mr. Trebek replies

Dear John:

I was recently made aware of your column and comments regarding our "Jeopardy!" program. If you indeed wrote to me, I never received the letter. I make it a policy to respond to all viewer mail.

With regard to the point you raised, you make a technical point and I thank you for keeping us on our toes. However, according to our sources, "The Elements of Grammar," "Discovering English Grammar," and "The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers," "a," "an," and "the" are classified as articles. Although most sources list articles as a type of adjective, there are reasons to consider them to be a separate part of speech. "Besides serving different purposes, articles and adjectives fill different syntactic slots. They are not interchangeable. When both occur within the same noun phrase, the article precedes the adjective. For example, we can have 'a miserable time' but not 'miserable a time.' ... In order for our grammar to generate grammatical sentences, it is necessary for it to distinguish these two parts of speech." (Veit, "Discovering English Grammar.")

I am delighted that it took you this long to find something to question on our show. I hope that you will continue to watch and enjoy "Jeopardy!," and that it will take as long before you find another "bone to pick."

Yours sincerely,

Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy!"

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