UW Students make linguistics fun with the Grammar Badgers website

When you think about “grammar,” are you plagued by childhood memories of learning a complicated series of rules about where to put commas, how semicolons work, or when to put an apostrophe in “its”?

Knowing this might be the case, students in Professor Anja Wanner’s English 413 wanted to change the average Wisconsinite’s conception of the subject. Last Spring semester, they created digital projects that would make their course concepts accessible to the general public through the Grammar Badgers website.

According to Jonathan Jibson, there’s actually a “natural kind of grammar in the way people speak that linguists find really exciting”—and that other people might find exciting, too. To demonstrate what “natural grammar” is, Jibson and his group presented people with technically correct sentences, followed by a similar sentence whose correctness was harder to determine. The point of this exercise was to demonstrate that grammar rules are often arbitrary because, according to Jibson, “language itself isn’t always as neat and tidy as we wish it would be.” You can watch all of the “Badger Me This” videos here.

Jennifer Marie Sterk’s interest in the evolution of American English informed her project for Grammar Badgers.  She drew inspiration from the Dictionary of American English (DARE) project at UW-Madison, which was based on interviews conducted by fieldworkers around the country from 1965-1970, thus providing extensive information on regional variation in vocabulary. Sterk wanted to know how students today understand dialect and whether or not they speak one. Along with her groupmates, she interviewed 40 UW-Madison students from all over the country to find out how frequently they used terms generally considered to be regional in conversation, and whether or not the variation in their vocabulary was due to the use of a regional dialect. This research became a mock-news presentation called “Do You Have A Dialect?”

Both Jibson and Sterk were proud to have contributed to the Wisconsin Idea by finding new, creative ways to present their linguistic research. For Sterk, this was an opportunity to introduce audiences to exciting resources like DARE, something she had only used in college classes. For Jibson, who is pursuing his PhD in the English Language and Linguistics program, and who is also a writing instructor, this was an important experience because of the way “grammar impacts people’s daily lives, whether that’s receiving a bad grade on an assignment just because of a typo or getting passed over for a job because you said ‘me and my friend’ instead of ‘my friend and I’ in an interview.”

Readers, you’re also encouraged to participate in the Wisconsin Idea by exploring these videos on the Grammar Badgers website—you might even discover a new interest in linguistics!