Houghton Mifflin HarcourtHistory Channel

Beginning with NHBB Nationals 2015-16, some NHBB tossups began to appear with a pre-tossup notice of “Description acceptable.” While the notice only began to appear at Nationals in April 2016, tossups that functioned in a similar manner have been part of NHBB and general quizbowl for many years. As head editor, I’ve been using (or not using) that notice in a particular way; I think it’s worth explaining the idea behind the notice to help players and moderators understand how it works.

The vast majority of NHBB tossups have answers like “the Battle of Gettysburg,” “Richard Nixon,” or “France”. These tossups can, without any worry of confusion, use phrases like “This battle,” “This person,” or “This country” to indicate what type of answer is being sought. Those answer lines will usually be very brief; there’s very little need for specific directions to the moderator on what to do with alternative acceptable answers.

Some NHBB tossups will ask about events that don’t have widely accepted names or titles. In these cases, the player doesn’t have a clearly expected response to give; they’re essentially expected to explain the answer to the moderator; by writing “Description acceptable” at the start of the tossup, players are made aware that such explanations are OK for this question.

The “Description acceptable” tag is not terribly common; after all, that reassurance is *not* what most tossups want to give, because the answer has a specific name. In addition, the “Description acceptable” tag is not used 100% of the time; there are plenty of answer lines that give the moderator leniency in accepting descriptions but don’t feel the need to give the players advance warning. An example is helpful; this tossup was used at the International History Olympiad in summer 2016.

Description acceptable. One of these works asks for the NPR channel on Long Island, as the writer’s Google searches had been unsuccessful. The alias “Eric Hoteham” was used to facilitate the creation of these works, and a man known as “Guccifer” revealed their existence. The phrase “What, like, with a cloth or something?” was sarcastically uttered by the writer of these works when questioned if a private server had been wiped by her. FTP, name these digital communications made and controversially stored on a private server by a former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential nominee.
Answer: Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (accept elaborations; prompt on partial answers)

In this tossup, the phrase “Description acceptable” is used to indicate that the player doesn’t necessarily need to recite the exact listed phrase to get credit for this tossup. If a player gives more information – “the e-mails stored on Hillary Clinton’s private server” – they are equally correct. If a player rephrases the answer – “e-mails sent by Hillary Clinton” – they are equally correct.

Another example comes from 2016’s US History Bee.

Description acceptable. This object was damaged by the Armistead family’s habit of cutting pieces out of it and sending them as gifts. Mary Young Pickersgill was commissioned by Joshua Barney to create this object. It survived a siege by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and bombardment by the HMS Erebus, which shot carcass shells and Congreve rockets at it; shortly after, a man aboard the HMS Tonnant observed that this object had not yet been taken down. FTP, identify this object that, during the Battle of Baltimore, flew above Fort McHenry illuminated by “the rocket’s red glare.”
Answer: the Star-Spangled Banner flag (or descriptions of the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key; accept the American flag above Fort McHenry before “Fort McHenry” is read; accept the Great Garrison Flag; prompt on flag; prompt on American flag by asking “which one?”; do not accept Old Glory)

This example shows the second primary reason why “Description acceptable” may be used; something may have a name, but the question writer is willing to give the players credit without knowing the exact name. In this particular case, the writer felt that saying “the American flag that Francis Scott Key saw” was worthy of points, not just a prompt. When we playtested this tossup as requiring “Star Spangled Banner,” players who said “the Key flag” and got prompted had a hard time figuring out what “name” we were looking for, so the leniency of “Description acceptable” was added.

A similar example from the same tournament asked for “In Event of Moon Disaster,” the contingency speech prepared for Richard Nixon in case the Apollo 11 astronauts became stranded on the Moon; the name of that speech is nowhere near famous enough to require for an answer, so the tossup allowed players to either give the official name, the nickname “Fate has ordained” (based on the opening phrase), or a description of what the speech was for (in case Apollo 11 was stranded on the Moon). Admittedly, these last two examples are particularly challenging for players to process; they were reserved for national finals, and tossups of similar difficulty would generally not be suitable for regular season play. In a tournament like B Set or A Set, the tossup would probably just be written on “Francis Scott Key” or “Apollo 11.” As the head editor of NHBB sets, I’ve been using “Description acceptable” to allow more variety in how we ask new questions on familiar topics, while still trying to keep the game accessible to new players who are still learning how the rules of quizbowl work.

In summary, “Description acceptable” is used when the tossup wants to reassure players who know what the tossup is asking for but aren’t sure if they’ve got the right words for the answer. We hope it’s helpful to players and moderators, and we’d love to hear from players, coaches, and moderators about what they think about these questions. E-mail me at brad@historybowl.com!