What Makes The Spelling Bee So Hard

This week, 291 children, ranging from a single kindergartner to 124 eighth-graders, will assemble in National Harbor, Maryland, for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.1 The bee, which began in 1925, is the highest-profile spelling contest in the country. The winner will receive a $40,000 cash prize, a Merriam-Webster reference library (as if they need it), an Encyclopædia Britannica and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. But most of the young spellers will go home empty-handed, victims of the bee’s wicked bell, which dings whenever a mistake is made.

Since 1996, young spellers have attempted to spell over 14,000 words2 — from abactor to zymurgy. Twenty-five percent of those words, over 3,500, have been misspelled. This year, yet more words will be plucked from 470,000-odd options in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary. I sifted through all 21 years’ worth of errors,3 looking for reasons that some of the best spellers in the world stumbled when the stakes were highest. I found a gantlet of potential pitfalls — including capricious vowel sounds and obscure double meanings. To help your own study habits — or make you thankful you never attempted a spelling career — I’ve put together a cheat sheet of eight spelling bee tips. Prepare your flash cards accordingly.

Tip 1: Don’t be intimidated by word length

When I was growing up, playground canon held that antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters) was the longest word. It was also received fact that longer words were harder to spell, which meant that that 28-letter beast was nigh impossible. The schoolyard logic remains appealing on some level: more letters, more opportunities for error. But in reality, many super-long words are technical or scientific in nature and often follow rules that are familiar to good spellers. For example, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters) appears in Merriam-Webster and thus could be posed in the bee. But it’s made up of logical, straightforward pieces with familiar lexicographic constructions — ultra meaning extreme, micro meaning small, -osis meaning disease, and so on. It’d likely be a cinch for any serious bee contender.

So what effect does word length have on bee performance? Not much, it seems. The median length of all words posed in the bee since 1996 is nine letters. The average length of correctly spelled words is 8.91, while the average length of incorrectly spelled words is 8.95. And the spreads of correctly spelled and misspelled words across the number of letters look quite similar.

Read more at FiveThirtyEight.