The importance of precise language in question writing

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The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby grapesmoker » Mon Dec 08, 2008 6:53 pm

In the last couple tournaments I've been to, specifically IO and T-Party, I repeatedly found myself confused by certain formulations of tossups; several times in both tournaments, I buzzed in with what I was sure was the right answer only to be negged. Each time, I went back to check the wording of the question after the fact to see if I was just retarded or if the wording really was somewhat confusing, and virtually every time I found sentence constructions that were either awkward or vague or both. For some reason, I found that this problem seems to afflict science, and particularly physics questions more often than those in other categories. I'm not sure if it's anything inherent in the material of these questions or not, but it's worth noting that this has been the case in my experience. Allow me to illustrate my point with some examples:

Illinois Open, Round 1 wrote:An extraordinary form of this behavior exists in systems for which the double exchange mechanism is energetically favorable, as exemplified by Heusler cells. Two important tools for studying systems with this property are a chart that has the as its x- and y-intercepts the coercivity and remanence, respectively, and a lattice model with Hamiltonian given by the sum over cells of the product of two numbers from U one, one number for the cell and one for each of its neighbors. Materials displaying this property exhibit near-constant H-fields on structures separated by Néel or Bloch walls and known as Weiss domains, which break down at the Curie temperature. For ten points, identify this form of magnetism studied with the aforementioned hysteresis loops and Ising model and materials displaying which retain a permanent magnetization when placed in an external field.

ANSWER: ferromagnetism


The bolded portion of the question represents how much of it I heard before I buzzed and gave "hysteresis" as the answer. Anyone who knows this material will recognize that the thing being described in the first clause of the second sentence is a hysteresis loop; thus, it was the answer that made sense to me at the time that I buzzed in. Now, some might raise the objection that the first clue uniquely identified ferromagnetism as the correct answer, but this is far from obvious to me; in my research afterwards, I could not turn up anything explicitly referred to as "extraordinary ferromagnetism," so my best guess as to what purpose that adjective serves is that it is a synonym for "unusual," which would make sense because Heusler alloys are alloys that exhibit ferromagnetism even though their constituents do not. Is the same true for hysteresis? It seems that it ought to be, since hysteretic effects are encountered in ferromagnetic materials, though I'm not sure it's exclusive to those materials. In any case, I found the implication that hysteresis loops are used to study ferromagnetism, well, not exactly false, but not really accurate either. It is certainly far less accurate than saying that hysteresis loops are used to study hysteresis, and since I didn't know the first clue at the time, buzzing with that answer on that clue made perfect sense. This is a problem that could have been fixed by saying something like "Materials that exhibit this property also exhibit a behavior that is studied using a chart etc."

Another example:

T-Party, Editors 1 wrote:Combining observations of these from reactors with prior data from SNO confirms the Large Mixing Angle hypothesis for these. These results from KamLAND improved upon previous measurements of the solar variety of these by Super-K, showing definite flavor oscillation. They make up most of the energy radiated in a supernova, and observations of the 1987A supernova showed that these arrived before the first photons, perhaps resulting from the fact that they are affected only by the weak force. For 10 points, name these particles which come in tau, muon, and electron varieties and which were first postulated by Pauli to allow conservation of energy and momentum in beta decay.
ANSWER: neutrino


Again, the bolded text is what I heard before buzzing. I gave "neutrino oscillations" as the answer and was negged. I was particularly annoyed by this since this was in our second match against Chicago and they proceeded to 30 the bonus, resulting in a possible 85 point swing in the game had it mattered. In any case, from what I can tell (and perhaps a particle physicist might correct me on this) I am right in my answer at the point where I buzzed. One problem here is that I have no way of knowing what "these" are supposed to be. Certainly neutrino oscillations qualify as "these" things. Another problem is that while "observations" would seem to indicate neutrinos are the right answer (since as I understand flavor oscillations are not "observed" directly, though I suppose "observed" could function here as a generic word meaning "this was the outcome of the experiment") the clue about the mixing angle indicates to me that neutrino oscillations are the correct answer, since the mixing angle is what is introduced to account for oscillations in neutrino flavors. The obvious solution to this problem is to simply say "these particles" instead of just "these" so it would be obvious what the answer should be.

A third example:

T-Party, Playoffs 2 wrote:‘t Hooft-Polyakov monopoles are predicted in these when the second homotopy group of a certain quotient of the underlying gauge group is non-trivial. This group is SU(5) in the Georgi-Glashow model of this, and it must split into the Standard Model gauge under symmetry breaking. It predicts proton decay and gives bounds on the possible masses of the fermions, and indirect evidence for it comes from the fact that the gauge coupling of the electroweak and strong forces seems to have equal strength at around 10 to the 16 GeV, which is known as its namesake scale. For 10 points, name these proposed physical theories that state that the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces are combined into a single field at extremely high energies.

Answer: _*Grand Unification Theories*_ or _*GUT*_ [accept equivalents containing the word _*unification*_]


While I'm not sure there is anything wrong with the facts of this question, the use of the pronoun "these" and then the pronoun "this" is horribly confusing. In particular, using the word "it" to refer to GUT's in general is strange; from the clue about proton decay I understood that GUTs were being talked about, but I figured the singular pronoun meant a specific GUT was being asked about. Eventually I gave SUSY as the wrong answer, and I have no claim that it should have been accepted, but the formulation of this questions completely threw me off. As I suggested to Andy (and as he apparently implemented afterwards), this question could have been made much less confusing simply by employing a construction like "these statements" (if you don't want to use the word "theory," although the question does just that later on) since that would have made it obvious that what was being sought was a whole class of objects rather than one specific one.

The problem with each of these questions is not so much in the facts themselves as in the fact that they employ indeterminate or inconsistent language in describing the answer that is being sought. It's a problem that I've seen come up now and again and one that is particularly vexing to me in this context since each time I was penalized on topics that I know a fair bit about (I hope no one will say that I don't know ferromagnetism from hysteresis or neutrinos from neutrino oscillations) and I would have been easily able to give the right answer if I had been able to understand what was being asked about. My purpose in writing about this is to encourage people to use specific, definite nouns and pronouns in their questions; those who play on your questions should never have to guess at the answer that is being sought for. On top of that, please pay attention to how your question sounds when it is being read out loud. The moderators at T-Party were generally excellent, but even with Kyle reading, confusion broke out between myself and Eric when the following line was read:

.One of his central findings was challenged on the basis of likely androcentricism in In a Different Voice,


Eric heard that as "one of its central findings" and, buzzing first, said something like "Kohlberg's book... Kohlberg" and kept trying to come up with the title of the book. I heard that as "This central finding," and was buzzing right after Eric with the intent of saying something like "Kohlberg's stages of moral development." (Luckily we got the points anyway). Like I said, even with an excellent moderator like Kyle, you can easily lose one or two key words and be totally thrown off the track, so I think it's preferable to spend the extra characters and write something unambiguous like "This thinker's central findings" or something similar.

In all situations, questions should be written in such a way that they unambiguously identify the correct answer being looked for, not just from a clue accuracy standpoint but from a grammatical standpoint. Whether the answer is a person, location, theory, concept, or whatever, should be obvious to any listener without having to guess what's going on. Most of the questions at both T-Party and IO did not have this problem, but for whatever reason, some of them did, and it's something that I've seen come up in less than meticulously edited tournaments in the past. If in doubt, read the question back to yourself and ask how it would sound or flow if you missed a word somewhere and make sure your description of the answer makes sense.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby Schweizerkas » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:01 pm

I see this problem a lot in physics questions as well, but it seems understandable to a certain degree. It's way more difficult to write physics tossups that uniquely point to a specific answer than, say literature tossups. Even speaking as someone who studies physics, I find it incredibly difficult to write physics tossups. Of the three tossups you mention, the only one that seems easy to rewrite to avoid confusion is the neutrino question, where you can just say "these particles." (Neutrino oscillations certainly should have been acceptable when you buzzed -- I'm surprised the moderator didn't accept your answer). When I hear tossups that sound like ferromagnetism/hysteresis, I always start sweating bullets, because I know there's a 50% chance (actually, it seems like more than 50%) that I'll neg with the wrong one -- it's the same thing with index of refraction/dielectric constant/permittivity tossups (in fact, I refuse to write tossups on the latter trio). Indeed, I did neg with hysteresis at the IO mirror. The GUT tossup is certainly extremely confusing (constant shifting between singular and plural), but I'm not certain "these statements" is that clear, either. Also, there isn't really just one single SUSY theory, so I think any kind of pronouns/nouns one would use to describe GUT's would probably describe SUSY as well.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby No Rules Westbrook » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:09 pm

Yeah, this is a great post. In writing, you should be sure that you get out a phrase which clearly identifies what sort of thing is being sought as quickly as possible. And you should keep in mind that it's super easy to get confused when things are being read out loud (I don't know about anyone else, but when I read packets I played, I often yell "man I don't even remember the moderator saying that! why didn't I buzz!" - it's just a way different game when it's being heard rather than read - iffy moderators just add to this). So, there's no problem with repeating what you want at least a couple of times in a question, even if it sounds a little repetitive. You should start questions with pronouns if you can, as opposed to putting them later, as in "t'Hooft-Polyakov monopoles are predicted in these."

Perfect grammar in packets is overrated (packets are less like English papers and more like "spoken word", I think) - but the paramount thing is to avoid confusion.

Like the previous poster said, though, this should come as no surprise. Often, the sort of thing Jerry talks about happens because writers are quite understandably trying to be coy. They're trying not to "hint" at what the answer might be too early (type of magnetism!!), they're trying to come up with non-obvious ways of describing things, etc. This is unfortunately an endemic problem that's only going to get worse. By the minute, it's growing harder and harder to conceal where certain questions are going (go ahead, write that Schmalkaldic League tossup! try, you fool!).

Unfortunately, I don't really think there's a solution - there are just some tossups that are hard to effectively conceal. Stopping players from "sniffing things out" is pretty hard. But, you surely only compound the problem when you try to hide the ball and in the process confuse even people who really do have legit knowledge.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby grapesmoker » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:27 pm

I think many people have a confused notion of coyness and transparency; that should be the topic of my next thread, once I get around to it. I think the important point regarding that issue is that saying things like "this thinker," "this phenomenon," "these theories," etc. is not necessarily transparent in and of itself. After all, even if I rewrote the GUT question to incorporate a consistent reference to "these statements," I think it would be hard to hear that and buzz with the correct answer. The field of possible answers that match the descriptor of "these statements" is just too large. And I did protest the neutrino question, but since it turned out not to matter, it was left as a neg for us.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby Cheynem » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:38 pm

I am interested in hearing thoughts about coyness/transparency in giving pronouns. For instance, if I write a toss-up on James Garfield, it would be transparent/non-pyramidal to say "This U.S. President" as the FIRST pronoun. Should I say "This man"? "This politician?" What is the proper first pronoun? I've noticed a tendency in my writing to say like "this man" for every toss-up about a person regardless of occupation or field. I wonder if this may be too coy.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby No Rules Westbrook » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:42 pm

Nah, go ahead and give US president. As a general rule: unless it reduces the field of possible answers to something very small, you can go ahead and give it. It might avoid something unfortunate happening like someone buzzing with a cabinet member under Garfield.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby grapesmoker » Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:45 pm

Cheynem wrote:I am interested in hearing thoughts about coyness/transparency in giving pronouns. For instance, if I write a toss-up on James Garfield, it would be transparent/non-pyramidal to say "This U.S. President" as the FIRST pronoun. Should I say "This man"? "This politician?" What is the proper first pronoun? I've noticed a tendency in my writing to say like "this man" for every toss-up about a person regardless of occupation or field. I wonder if this may be too coy.


I think any of those things is fine. I personally don't see the point of saying "this man" if you're leading with political clues anyway, so you might as well say "this politician" if you like. I would leave the bit about the president out because once you start talking about cabinet appointments (as you do in almost any president tossup) it will become obvious that a president is the answer.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby Captain Sinico » Mon Dec 08, 2008 9:08 pm

Jerry, I think you're right on here. I often experience the same issue with questions, especially science questions.
In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the ferromagnetism question. While I'll argue that hysteresis loops are used to study ferromagnetism, that's a moot point: as far as I know, your answer was right at the point you buzzed (I believe systems exhibiting double-exchange ferromagnetism also exhibit perfectly normal hysteresis) because I didn't do a very good job of distinguishing a single answer or offering an accept/prompt* for the answer you gave. Sorry about that.
That leads me to a second point. As an editor or writer, especially of science questions, one should carefully what other answers might be specified by the given clues. I find that, more often than I think acceptable, questions wind up without any alternative or promptable answers. I don't think this is the fault of a lack of knowledge so much as a lack of diligence (I'll humbly submit my own example as a point in case.)

MaS

*I say perhaps prompt because I think I may have uniquely specified ferromagnetic hysteresis. I'm unsure if remainance/susceptance are terms used for hysteresis generally, or only in the case of ferromagnetic hysteresis: I can't recall those terms having been used in the case of the hysteresis-exhibiting systems I'm familiar with.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby Captain Sinico » Mon Dec 08, 2008 9:19 pm

My own practice is to use pronouns of increasing specificity. So, in the case of a Garfield tossup, I might begin with just "this person," then "this man," then "this politician," then maybe "this Republican" and finally "this President." I think this has a number of positive benefits, not the least of which is keeping the question interesting (so you're not saying "this man" or something over and over again.)

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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby cornfused » Mon Dec 08, 2008 9:31 pm

Captain Scipio wrote:not the least of which is keeping the question interesting (so you're not saying "this man" or something over and over again.)

Which was my objection to this:
T-Party wrote:9. This figure once hired eighty butlers in order to hold a feast for eighty spiders with tails, before ordering the butlers to slay the spiders. During one journey, this figure was invited to a feast at a palace that stood upon a single pillar. This figure once fainted after seeing a bear come out of and back into a mountain. This figure once followed a giant crow to a well, from which a man with a tail emerged; that tailed man is later revealed to be the Earth god. This figure refuses to fight while facing the sun, and his possessions include a mirror, a jewel, and a sword, which serve as his regalia. For ten points, name this descendent of the sun goddess Amateratsu, the legendary first Emperor of Japan.
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Re: The importance of precise language in question writing

Postby SnookerUSF » Mon Dec 08, 2008 9:55 pm

Jerry et. al.,

In the examples you cited and in general, do you think it is possible to retain the coyness in the interests of avoiding transparency, if a more rigorous accept/prompt line is provided. I ask because I think given the practical exigencies that arise in the writing/editing process, it might be easier to append prompts, rather than write a tossup that uses specific pronouns and still avoids transparency. Obviously this is the ideal situation, but in the case where compromises have to be made, and I argue that at times and even in the best of situations they do, what is order of priority for you: unambiguous pronouns versus transparency avoidance, I would argue that transparency is the graver sin in this case.
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