US spelling aces wield vowels, consonants and hopes to W-I-N

OXON HILL, Md., June 1 (Reuters) - Forty finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday will brandish vowels, consonants and the hope of putting them in the proper order to score a $40,000 cash prize.

Weeded down from a starting field of 291 contestants on Wednesday in the 90th national Bee, the finalists face off at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in suburban Washington.

Final rounds, expected to begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT Friday), will be televised live on ESPN.

Competitors age 6 to 15 emerged from early spelling bees engaging more than 11 million youths from all 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories from Puerto Rico to Guam, and several nations, from Jamaica to Japan.

During a tense day of preliminary competition on Wednesday, an 11-year-old girl wiped away tears as she departed the stage at the Washington-area resort after misspelling the word "severance."

A look back at last year's National Spelling Bee:

Daniel Doudna, 13, of Fairbanks, Alaska, said it was "amazing" to be the third child in his family to attend the national Bee. He advanced on Wednesday by correctly spelling the word "agonistic," which means combative.

"We homeschool and we also don't do a lot of organized sports because they take up a lot of time," said Doudna's mother, Heidi Doudna, when asked about the source of her children's spelling success.

Contestant Jaden Zhang, 10, of Richmond, Ontario in Canada misspelled the word "inopportune" in the third round, but said he was not sad because he knows he can come back next year.

"It's really fun just seeing people with the same interests," said Zhang, who has been studying roughly three hours a day for the last three months to prepare for the competition.

New rules this year are aimed at preventing tie endings like last year's, when joint winners both got $40,000 cash prizes.

Bee officials will administer a Tiebreaker Test to all spellers in the competition at 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Thursday. It will consist of 12 spelling words, which contestants will handwrite, and 12 multiple-choice vocabulary questions.

If it is mathematically impossible for one champion to emerge through 25 rounds, officials will declare the speller with the highest tiebreaker score the winner. If there is a tie on the test, judges will declare co-champions.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)