The One Dastardly Sound That Eliminates the Most Kids in the National Spelling Bee

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May 28 2014 12:52 PM

As Easy As A-B-Schwa

What sounds and letters are most likely to trip up contestants at the National Spelling Bee?

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More telling than the type of error are the letters involved. Proportional to how often the letter appears, J is the thorniest letter in the alphabet. Roughly 9 percent of the time, a J was incorrectly swapped out for another letter, as when jardiniere was incorrectly spelled as gardiniere. On the other end of the continuum, N was used more than 3,500 times in almost 2,900 different words and not once substituted for the wrong letter. The letter B was used 1,005 times and was only switched with the wrong letter once, when dysbarism was spelled dysporism.

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While J is a tricky letter, is appears in only a small fraction of spelling bee words—about 2 percent. Last year’s winner, Arvind Mahankali, spelled 14 words onstage and never received a word with a J, Q, or Y.

Most people are forced to give up their spelling dreams because of trouble with vowels. In the substitution category, the five letters that were most likely to be missed are E, I, A, O, and Y. While these letters are common to begin with, representing 39 percent of all letters in spelling bee words, they make up a disproportionate 74 percent of all errors.

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Vowels also cause trouble in the deletion and insertion categories. The most common insertion was adding an extra E. The most common deletion: giving no letter where there should have been an E.

Treating all deletions, insertions, and specific letter-for-letter substitutions as separate mistakes, I counted 140 unique error categories in the last 10 spelling bees. Below are the 30 most likely reasons a speller will hear the elimination ding. (If multiple mistakes occurred in one word, all were counted.)

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To make sense of this data, I talked to Arjun Modi, a two-time National Spelling Bee participant who placed 17th in 2005. When I showed him the letters in the chart above, he offered a simple explanation: ə.

The ə is an orthographic representation of the schwa, a ubiquitous and bland vowel sound—it’s the uh in dull. Modi describes it as “the most difficult to get right, since it’s one sound and hard to pick up since it is unstressed.” What makes it particularly troubling, for spellers, is that it can take the form of every vowel. In last year’s bee, the schwa threw off spellers when it should’ve been an A (cyanophycean misspelled as cyanophycein), an E (zenaida misspelled as zaneida), an I (cabotinage misspelled as cabotonnage), an O (melocoton misspelled as melecaton), a U (kuruma misspelled as kurama) and a Y (doryline misspelled as doraline). The top three runners-up in last year’s bee were all eliminated when they used the wrong vowel to spell out the ə sound.

From the data provided, I matched 1,100-plus spelling mistakes in the last 10 years to the official Merriam-Webster pronunciations. (If there were multiple pronunciations, only the first was used). All individual characters were counted as unique sounds, with the exception of ch, sh, th, and zh, which were all treated as unique sounds. Of the more than 1,100 mistakes in the data set, 35 percent occurred on the ə sound. The next-biggest offender was s, at 8 percent, followed closely by ē (e.g., the long E in beep), k, and i.

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The schwa is the most error-causing sound in terms of total mistakes triggered, but it’s also a very common sound. Does ə cause the most total mistakes because it is the most common sound or because it is likely to cause the spellers to flub? It turns out the answer is both: The schwa both causes the most total errors and causes errors at a higher rate than any other sound.

The schwa causes a mistake about 7.5 percent of the time it appears. A few other sounds come close (ī triggers errors 6.7 percent of the time, while ē comes in at 6.2 percent), but most others don’t compare. S, k, and i all cause a speller to go home less than 3.5 percent of the time, and t and l (which are both in the top 10 for total errors caused) caused an incorrect spelling less than 2 percent of the time.

When America’s top spellers line up this week, it will only be a matter of time before the first one succumbs to the ə. If they’re lucky, perhaps they won’t get a ə and they’ll be able to sneak on by. Maybe they’ll even get the word schwa—using Merriam-Webster’s first pronunciation, it’s spoken with an ä.

Ben Blatt is a Slate staff writer and co-author of I Don't Care if We Never Get Back. Follow him on Twitter. Email him at ben.blatt@slate.com.