Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The English Verb by Michael Lewis--Revisited

(Book Review)

This is another book I've read before.  For my review from 3 years ago, see here.

I've re-read it for the professional development book club that I have going at work.

Previously, the last book we finished had been Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill.  That book, although useful, was boring to read all the way through, and I wanted to make sure we didn't follow it up with another real boring book.  So I suggested The English Verb by Michael Lewis.  (It's more interesting than it sounds.  Trust me.)

As usual, while we read this book, I did my best to keep up the discussion on Facebook.
(A few books back, some of my colleagues suggested to me that regular Facebook discussion would increase their motivation to read these books.  And ever since then, I've tried to post something at least once a day on the book club Facebook page.)
As usual, I will duplicate all of those Facebook posts here on this blog.  For whatever they may be worth.

Day 1
Some notes about the new book (The English Verb by Michael Lewis)
The three of us who attended the last session felt that the previous book (Sound Foundations), while very useful, was not very interesting. So we decided to reward ourselves by picking an interesting book for next time.
"Interesting" of course being a relative term. (This is, after all, the Delta Reading List).
But there is one subversive author who managed to sneak his way onto the Delta Reading List--Michael Lewis--and his books are always interesting.
Michael Lewis is the contrarian of ELT. He tends to write books about how everyone else is teaching ELT wrong. As such, he's an interesting counterpoint to conventional wisdom.
Lewis's most infamous book, "The Lexical Approach", is just one long rant about how everything you learned on the CELTA is wrong.
For some mysterious reason, that book didn't make it onto the DELTA reading list. But two of Michael Lewis's other books did (The English Verb and Implementing the Lexical Approach).
Because of his polemical nature, people tend to either love or hate Michael Lewis.
Some people find his writing style pretentious and unbearable, other people find his contrarian views a breath of fresh air.
My own opinion is that he should be read with an open mind, but also critically.
It's probably a mistake to dismiss all of his ideas out-of-hand. I think Michael Lewis does have some good points to be made, and I think that he's right that we should re-consider some of the ways we commonly teach.
On the other hand, the first time I read Michael Lewis, I was probably a little bit too persuaded by him. (He writes well, so it's easy to be persuaded by him while you're reading him). But having had some time to reflect on it, I've decided that perhaps not all the language data fits his model.
I read "The English Verb" 3 years ago, so I'll be re-reading it this time.
The book is slightly foggy in my memory at this point, but I'll try to summarize the main points below.
Michael Lewis believes that ELT textbooks are teaching English verb tenses all wrong.
ELT textbooks typically present lists of rules and exceptions for when to use verb tenses. (e.g. --you teach the students that the present perfect is used in certain situation, is not used in other situations, and then have the students memorize all the exceptions to the rules).
Lewis believes that instead each verb tense has one unifying meaning, and that one meaning explains its use over all the different possible situations.
This very much appealed to me when I first read Michael Lewis's book, in part I think because it was cool to think that language had an underlying logic and predictability. I thought that it was a cool idea that you didn't always know what you meant by the present perfect, but your brain did, and every time you used the present perfect you were expressing the same meaning.
But in the couple years since I've read the book, I've gradually come to doubt it, because I've gotten the impression that language might be a lot messier than Michael Lewis gives it credit for, and maybe it's hard to fit all the verb tense uses into one unifying meaning.
It will be a good question for debate anyway, as we read through the book.
Another main point of the book is that Michael Lewis believes that different verb tenses reflect differently psychological ways of viewing the same event, and are dependent on the way a speaker views an event, and not the situation.
So, for example, whether you say:
The train leaves at 4:00
The train is leaving at 4:00
The train is going to leave at 4:00
The train will leave at 4:00
...all of these are dependent upon how you are subjectively viewing the event, and not on the situation itself.
Therefore, all the textbook gapfills and all the tests we use are wrong, because they give prompts based on external circumstances. But actually, according to Michael Lewis, in any given situation, a speaker could use a range of verb tenses, and it wouldn't be incorrect, it would just reflect how they were subjectively viewing the event.
It's an interesting idea, and if it's true, then this would have a big effect on how strictly we grade tests. Speaking just personally, in the years since I've read this book, I've started becoming a lot more tolerant of alternative answers on gap fill questions when I grade tests.
But, as with everything in the book, it's an open question and we should get some good debate on it.
Lastly, and probably most controversially, Michael Lewis argues in this book that the present simple tense and the past simple tense have nothing to do with the present or the past. Rather, they simply reflect how distant or immediate the speaker feels the actions to be. (For example, we can use the present tense to narrate a past event if we feel that the events have a certain immediacy to us now. Or conversely, we can use the past simple to talk about the future--in conditionals or hypothetical--to show distance from reality.)
Lots of people disagree with this. (Scott Thornbury, for example, has written against this view). But it's interesting food for thought, and hopefully we'll get some discussion out of it.

Day 2
Something I forgot to mention yesterday:
I've read a couple Michael Lewis books now, and in both books I find he has a lot of fascinating ideas on the micro-level, but I feel like he lacks coherence on the macro-level.
In other words, when I read his books, I'm constantly thinking to myself: "Oh, isn't that an interesting idea." But when I try to summarize his books and pull out unifying ideas, I find myself frustrated.
I may have been too kind to him yesterday by suggesting that his book has identifiable main points. It might be more accurate to say that the book has a lot of different observations about language that are difficult to summarize.
Or, I don't know, maybe my inability to summarize the book just reflects my limitations as a reader. We'll have to check this and compare notes as we read.
Something I remember being frustrated about when I read "The English Verb" the first time was it was never clear how much of the information in the book was intended for the classroom.
In the beginning of the book, Michael Lewis makes clear that his intention is to educate the English teacher, not the students. “In the early discussion of examples the reader must not think My students will never understand this—that is not the intention of the book. The first intention is to ensure that teachers understand how the main building blocks of the English verb work.” (p. 8)
This message is reiterated at the end of the book:
“I have attacked many traditional classroom explanations in this book. I can think of nothing more unsatisfactory than that teachers should now take the explanations offered in this book and present them to their students!
I believe it is essential for teachers to have a clear and deep understanding of the central structures of the English language they are teaching. I do not, however, believe that explanation has anything other than a very small part to play in the normal school classroom. I beg the reader not to impose the rather abstract explanations of this book on their unsuspecting students.” (p. 180)
On the other hand, some sections of the book, like chapters 2 and 21, are clearly marked to consider the classroom implications.
So some parts of the book are clearly marked for the classroom, and some parts of the book are for the benefit of the teacher’s knowledge only.
Despite these clear demarcations at certain points, much of the middle of the book was a grey area for me where I was unsure if the information was intended for the classroom or not.
It was really unclear what to do with the information in the book.
Among other practical considerations, many of the textbooks that are currently assigned to my students favor the “catalogue and exceptions” approach that Michael Lewis criticizes, and when the students have an assigned text it is often easier to just follow the explanations used in the textbook rather than spending the whole course trying to fight the textbook.
Another practical consideration is that for low level students. Since I don't speak Vietnamese, I’m not sure how I would explain complex concepts such as psychological time (which Michael Lewis claims is essential to the meaning of the verbs) across the language barrier.
(Actually Michael Lewis believes that teachers shouldn’t worry about explaining, since teachers should do as little explaining as possible. Students should simply be given example sentences and should be encouraged to work out the rules for themselves through activities such as sorting exercises. So maybe that's another option.)

Day 3
Before we get too far into Michael Lewis, let me introduce a counterpoint. This is something maybe to keep in the back of your mind while you're reading the book.
If memory serves, Michael Lewis argues that each verb tense has one unifying meaning.
For example, Michael Lewis dislikes textbooks that divide "will" into a list of prescribed situations and "going to" into another list of prescribed situations.
Instead, Michael Lewis says that, properly understood, "will" has one unifying meaning that explains its use across all the different situations.
This idea struck me as almost Chomskyian in its view of language--you may not understand the difference between "will" and "going to" but your subconscious does, and every time you choose one form instead of the other, your language is giving some sort of insight into how you subconsciously view the event.
However, evidence that language can be a lot messier, and might not always perfectly follow the rules, comes from "Grammar for English Language Teachers" by Martin Parrott (another book on the DELTA reading list).
Parrot shows that there are a lot of other factors that show whether a speaker chooses "will" or "going to". According to Parrot, some of this just comes down to personal preference. (Some speakers just naturally prefer one form over another--Parrott p.175)
And also we vary forms for the sake of variety. Native speakers dislike the reptition of one form too much, particular with "going to". So when talking about future plans, native speakers will vary "going to" with "will" just for stylistic reasons. (Parrott p.176--in the book, Parrott does a good job of supporting this with actual examples from real speech).
According to Parrott, it also varies according to formality, type of text, and clause type (we usually use "will" rather than "going to" in subordinate clauses).
Initially I had been very captivated by Michael Lewis, but after reading Parrott, it caused me to wonder if maybe the language was actually a lot messier than Michael Lewis was making out, and maybe there wasn't always a clear distinction between "will" and "going to"
Something to think about as you read through the book,at any rate.
(But as a sidenote, note here that whether you side with Parrott or Michael Lewis, either way the ESL textbooks are still teaching "will" and "going to" all wrong. Michael Lewis is arguing that there's one central meaning underlying the verb tense, and so you shouldn't teach students lists of situations. Parrott seems to be saying that in many cases, there's no real difference between "will" and "going to" at all.)

Day 4
After I read this book last time (3 years ago now) I struggled with how to use this knowledge in the classroom.
Michael Lewis specifically directs the teacher not to take all this knowledge into the classroom. So maybe the best thing to do would be to leave it alone.
But then, what do you do? Continue following the textbook? It was hard to go back to teaching "will" and "going to" the same way after having read and agreed with Michael Lewis's critique of traditional textbook explanations.
So the next time "will" and "going to" came up in the textbook, I tried to design my own worksheet on it. (It's designed to be cut at the dotted line, and handed out to the students in two parts).
It's pretty terrible. The only reason I still have it is because I save all my old worksheets. But I don't think I'd ever re-use this one. It probably represents the prefect way not to make use of Michael Lewis's book in the classroom.
But then... how best to make use of this book?

Day 5
Michael Lewis discusses grammar facts (and the difficulty in defining them).
He uses as his example:
"Twelve nouns ending in -f or -fe, drop the -f or -fe and add -ves"
He then discusses the difficulty with selecting and teaching these "grammar facts".
But to what he says, let me add something else.
I think he intended to select an example here in which there was no ambiguity (.e. a clear, undebatable, grammar fact) but interestingly enough, there is some debate about which nouns change from -f to -ves.
See for example "elf" versus "elves"
or "dwarf" versus" dwarves"
And maybe more examples I can't think of. (Any other examples of cases where their is debate about a plural "ves" ?)

Day 6
Continuing his discussion of "-ves" plurals, Michael Lewis writes:
"It is immediately obvious that some of the words are considerably more important to the foreign language learning than others; most students will need -selves, but few will need wolves or sheaves."
I'll give him "sheaves" but "wolves" actually strikes me as necessary. Granted, you don't need it to answer the "What did you do today?" type questions, but a knowledge of basic animal names is necessary to get through any sort of content reading in English. The word "wolf" pops up as early as English World 4 in our textbooks, for example.
And several of the eliciting questions in the level testing booklet ask students to talk about their favorite animals, or describe what kind of an animal they would like to be, etc.
Not to mention all the environmental and nature themed reading in the Cengage books.
And the plural form is necessary because when you talk about any animal in general, we usually use the plural.

Day 7
Michael Lewis mentions that students of English don't need to know all the irregular verb forms, because some of them are very infrequent.
Undoubtedly this is true. (Students probably don't need to know shear, sheared, shorn).
But how big of a problem is this? Michael Lewis says that "One of the best examples of this problem, which most teachers will recognise, is the lists of irregular verbs which occur in grammar books or modern English" (p.10). But do these lists of infrequent irregular verbs often occur in textbooks? I haven't noticed them.
(Maybe it was different in 1986, when this book was first published?)
Also, another thing to consider:
The folks at the Ling Space argue that only irregular verbs that are frequent in the input will preserve their irregular form. If you seldom hear the irregular form in use, people will begin to regularize it.
By this logic, all irregular verbs are frequent by definition. Or at least will be soon. (Infrequent irregular verbs are already on their way out. For example, "shorn" is already changing to "sheared").

XXXX Commented:

I remember my English textbooks from junior high, and we definitely had a long table of irregular verbs in each of those, usually at the back. We were expected to learn a set number as part of our homework after every lesson, and then once the total number reached a certain point, we would have a test—I always cheated on those. Never learned anything from those tables: even back then it sounded like the stupidest thing ever. And now you have EFL teachers who do this to their students: A colossal waste of time for everyone involved, but apparently it's "fun", and other teachers seem to be using this video now. From the comments: "My english teacher brought me here." / "My teacher told me that I've got to learn all this song....for tomorow.I'm from Romania.RIP me."

I replied:

Oh man! That video!

XXXX Commented:

What's even worse about making students learn all those tables is that, not only are they useless, but they also make otherwise perfectly capable language learners who are not good at memorizing huge amounts of random data feel stupid. For instance, I remember that, apart from irregular verbs, we were also expected to memorize the tense shift table:, some kids were actually good at it, and some chosen few could—and would—even reproduce the whole table like that at will, on the whiteboard. Which always made me think, "There must be something wrong with me cause I could never do that. I must be stupid." Curiously enough, this inability to reproduce tables didn't affect my spoken or written English in any way, but still—teacher says that your English ability hinges on your knowledge of grammar, and if you can't memorize grammar rules, then damn right you should feel stupid and useless, because obviously you are.
I replied:

You would enjoy Michael Lewis's other book "The Lexical Approach". In that book, he says that reported speech, as taught in textbooks, bears little relation to what native speakers actually say 

Day 8
In his discussion about patterns, Michael Lewis introduces question tags as an example of "a pattern that can be perceived and understood" (p.10). Michael Lewis says that students "may either find the pattern for themselves by considering a sufficiently large range of examples, or they may be giving the pattern in a formulation" (p.10).
I think that perhaps Michael Lewis is right in his general principle here, but maybe has chosen a poor example of easily understandable patterns. Because question tags, once you get into them, can be baffling in their complexity.
If anyone is interested in exploring just how confusing question tags can get, I can relate this own example from my experience:
A few months back, a student approached me after class with a grammar book she was working through, and wanted my help answering some of the questions.
One sentence read:
It'll be a year before we see him again...The student was then prompted to chose between "won't it?" or "won't we?"
"The correct answer is won't it? " I told her.
"It's so confusing," she said. "I don't know which subject goes with the question tag. Isn't we the main verb?
"No, It is the main subject of this sentence," I said. "We is in a subordinate clause."
The very next sentence was:
I believe he's given up smoking... The choices were "hasn't he?" and "don't I?"
My native speaker intuition was telling me that "hasn't he?" sounded much more natural in this sentence. But I believe was clearly the main clause of the sentence, so this was contradicting what I had told her before.
I couldn't explain this, so I posted this on my blog
as part of my "Grammar Questions I Couldn't Answer" series:
Stephan Hurtubise (a linguist and author of the Ling Space Video series) was kind enough to help me work through some of the complexities. He commented:
I was browsing your 'unanswered grammar questions' series, and I decided to give this one a shot, since it's relatively straightforward.
So, there's a few things going on here. First, I'd say that in all cases, with all other things being equal, the tag can refer back to something either in the main clause or in a subordinate clause. In the think-and-similar-expressions case, the reason the tag has to refer back to something in the subordinate clause isn't grammatical -- it's psychological. That is, practically speaking, it's normally the case that we have access to our own thoughts, so it would be unusual for someone to question whether or not they believe something. But we can invent scenarios where this kind of tag actually becomes quite normal:
Imagine you're directing a play, and in the scene that's being rehearsed, one of the actresses is trying to come up with a natural reaction to her husband coming home smelling like cigarette smoke. She says to you "I believe he's given up smoking, don't I?"
Here, the tag makes sense, because the person asking the question doesn't have direct access to their own thoughts (or, more precisely, the thoughts of the character they're playing). So it doesn't really look like there's a grammatical prohibition on this, but the context definitely matters.
As for why a tag can't refer back to something inside a 'before' clause: this one's grammatical, but it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with syntax (more like semantics, or pragmatics). Most (perhaps all) subordinating conjunctions are presuppositional, which means they take for granted as true whatever clause happens to follow them. So, "It'll be a year before we see him again" takes for granted that we'll see him again. We can tell that this really is a case of presupposition, because when we try to negate the sentence, the assumption lingers; "It won't be a year before we see him again" still seems to mean that we'll be seeing him again (perhaps within a year). And since a presupposition is information that the speaker assumes he or she can take for granted as being known, it would be bizarre to go on and question that assumption.
What's going wrong in that first sentence of yours is that same thing that's going wrong in a sentence like "John's children are awfully noisy, but does he have children?" It's strange to question something that you've already decided to take for granted as true.
***End quote****
Sounds simple enough, right? But then Stephen posted later to update his thoughts:
You got me thinking about this, and I dug a little deeper; lo and behold, I discovered something more (and ended up learning something new)!
So, I think the first half of my response still works -- about being able to question either the main clause (in the right context, anyway) or the embedded clause (at least with think-verbs). But it seems the second half isn't quite right: while it's true that it's generally strange to question a presupposition, as in the "John's children" example, that can't be what's going on here.
If it were true that we can't ever question a presupposition, then we shouldn't be able to say something like "I know he's given up smoking, hasn't he?" To the degree that it's acceptable (I think it works in a context where you say it like you're sort of questioning what you thought you knew about someone, or you're unsure of your own memories about them), it's a problem for my explanation. "Know" is usually considered to be a factive verb, which means it presupposes the truth of the clause that comes after it. This is easy to tell with a positive/negative pair of sentences like "Mary knows he's given up smoking" and "Mary doesn't know he's given up smoking"; each one assumes it's been given up. But if "know" is factive, and we can also question the embedded clause, we're sort of back to square one.
It seems, instead, that you were right all along! The accepted pattern is what you first thought it was: tag questions must refer back to main clauses, not embedded ones. Which of course leaves us wondering why it ends up working with verbs like "believe," "think," and even "know." Well, apparently, these are exceptions! But not random ones, thankfully. The relevant distinction is that these are so-called 'bridge verbs' (as opposed to non-bridge verbs). So, what this means is that we can say things like "What do you believe he bought" or "What do you think he bought." You can't really do this with non-bridge verbs like "whisper"; "What did you whisper he bought" sounds pretty strange. Sure enough, tag questions referring back to bridge verb clauses work, while tag questions referring back to non-bridge verb clauses don't! Compare the good "I think he's Norwegian, isn't he?" with the bad "I whispered he's Norwegian, isn't he?"
So, there you go! At least, until I find another problem with this explanation. ;-P
I responded:
Interesting. I didn't even realize the problem in your first explanation, but I guess this gets more and more complicated.
What about your original point that we can invent scenarios where the question tag would be normal, like the actress in the play saying "I believe he's given up smoking, don't I?"
And Stephen said:
I think that still holds up. Besides fiddling with the context, Another way to get around the apparent awkwardness of "I believe he's given up smoking . . . don't I?" is to just switch the subject, so that it no longer refers to the speaker: "You believe he's given up smoking . . . don't you?" works just fine. In fact, when the subject is "you," the tag question referring back to the main clause (rather than the embedded one) seems much more natural -- to me, at least.
To make things even more complicated, I'm not sure the whole bridge/non-bridge explanation actually, totally works -- at least, not without some kind of qualification. Both "think" and "regret" are bridge verbs, since both of the following questions seem to sound okay -- to my ears, anyway: "Who do you think never got the chance to speak" and "Who do you regret never got the chance to speak." And yet, "think" is happy with a tag question poking around inside its embedded clause, while "regret" seems not to like it very much: "I think he got the chance . . . didn't he?" is fine, but "I regret he got the chance . . . didn't he?" seems odd (though, maybe you can think of a context that'll make it work).
So, the full pattern seems to be that tag questions target main clauses, except when certain verbs are in play (e.g., think, believe, suppose, figure, guess) -- and even then, only when the subjects of those verbs refer to the speaker. Otherwise, the tag still prefers to refer back to the main clause. So, it's a very narrow set of exceptions. But, what exactly these verbs have in common with each other is tricky to pin down: it doesn't look like it's bridge verbs, as one grammarian suggested, since it doesn't work with "regret"; it doesn't look like it's only non-factive verbs, since it seems to work with "know" (in a very specific context, mind you); maybe it's some complex combination of properties? Like, maybe this works with positive emotive attitude verbs -- so, verbs like the ones I listed just above -- but excludes negative emotive words like "regret", "surprised," and "ashamed," which allow so-called negative polarity items like "any" and "ever" into the sentence. It might also have something to do with whether a verb is 'epistemic' in nature (i.e., having to do with knowledge and belief).
It's obviously a very complex pattern, and it's no wonder it's so hard for learners to get a grip on it. It also looks like it's not something that's been written about much, which is why it's been so hard for me to come up with a definitive, well-informed answer. One published paper* speculated this is because it's something that's common in spoken speech, but not so common in writing. I'll definitely keep thinking about it, and I'll try to talk to some experts about it, to see what I can find out. For sure, we'll definitely be doing more episodes about different kinds of verbs; I can't promise I'll write any scripts about tag questions and embedded clauses anytime soon, though, since there seems to be very little written about them! :-/
*I kid you not, it's called "English tag questions are quite complicated, aren't they?"
So... yeah!
So much for question tags having a simple pattern that students can easily identify.

Day 9
Michael Lewis talks about the conflict between grammar and lexical items.
In his book "The Lexical Approach", Michael Lewis seems to have a different point of view, and is advocating that the line between lexis and grammar is actually pretty blurred, and that we should be emphasizing lexis phrases rather than grammar structures.
I got the impression that "The Lexical Approach" was kind of in contradiction to "The English Verb". Although he never stated so directly. But just in general terms, the fact that the entirety of "The English Verb" is based on understanding verb tenses seems to be in contradiction to his dismissal of grammar in "The Lexical Approach"

Day 10
Oh, by the way, the new episode of TEFLology is out, which is an interview with Jennifer Jenkins.
(Remember Jennifer Jenkins? She was the person associated with the World English pronunciation advocacy. She's popped up in previous books we've done.).
Anyway, in the interview, Jennifer Jenkins admits that now that she is no longer teaching grammar in the classroom, she is having trouble remembering exactly what the differences are between past simple and present perfect.
Which, I thought, tied in in a funny coincidental way with what Michael Lewis says on page 13. "Few native speakers could make any attempt at all at explaining the difference between the past simple and the present perfect."

Day 11
On this page, Michael Lewis lays out what I think is the main point of the book. (Or at least this was my main take away from last time I read it). He develops this later in the book, but this is as good a time as any to set the question. What do you think of this?
As Michael Lewis writes:
"Most student grammars, and textbook syllabuses, are based on a catalogue approach to grammar. Different units are covered one by one in separate paragraphs or units. Each paragraph is independent of the others. There are two difficulties which result from this. Firstly, students are given the impression that they are attempting an impossible task; as soon as they have finished one paragraph, or one use of a verb form, they are presented with another, and another, and another. ... Rarely, if ever, do they see the parts they are learning as coming together to form a coherent whole. Not surprisingly, such a catalogue approach, giving an impression of impossibility, de-motivates students. The second problem is that each paragraph is, in a way, an exception to the previous paragraph. Students may, for example, learn that the present continuous is used for an action going on at the moment of speaking (this is a dangerous half-truth, see Chapter 12), and then they learn that the present continuous can also be used for the future. Nobody takes time to explain that there is a reason for this, and that indeed the two uses are fundamentally the same (see Chapters 12 and 17). This "catalogue and exceptions" approach must depress students. Instead of encouraging a feeling of progress as they learn more language, it gives them a feeling that the task is becoming more and more impossible."

XXXX Commented:

I'm not sure how much of a problem it is when it comes to grammar books—few people read those, and hardly anyone attempts to read them from cover to cover. As for textbooks, I'm not sure the catalogue approach to grammar is even true anymore. The importance of grammar instruction seems to have diminished in recent textbooks if your compare them to the ones teachers used, say, 2 decades ago. I do, however, consider treating adults as children by telling them half-truths about grammar a problem. But here we seem to have only 2 choices, both bad: either you dumb down the grammar as we do now (only to contradict ourselves in later lessons and confound our students)—or you painstakingly explain every bit of grammar in as much detail as possible, essentially giving your students a lecture and making the lesson unbearable (not to mention that it would take a very high-level class to even be able to follow such a lecture). In theory, the functional approach to language could solve this problem: you only teach your students how to convey various types of messages using the language they're learning, without teaching them the grammar. The problem with this approach is that I'm not sure it's ever been done, in its pure form. And if you dilute it and take the middle of the road, "a lil bit of this, a lil bit of that" approach, then the problem of explaining grammar immediately resurfaces. So, the answer to this one, like all the other questions in EFL, seems to be, "Who knows ..."
I replied:

So, the textbooks we teach out of are guilty of this. ("This" meaning the method Michael Lewis is decrying above). The present continuous for future arrangements is introduced as a completely separate entity than present continuous for current events. The various uses of the present perfect are gradually taught to the students in a variety of different units, and each use is presented as having no relationship to the previous uses.
As you say, it's a matter of debate whether this is even a problem or not. (Michael Lewis is of the opinion that everyone is teaching ELT wrong except for him, but it's debatable.) But I think the textbooks are definitely presenting verb tenses this way. 
Day 12
Michael Lewis talks about the difference between "some" and "any" and how ESL coursebooks often misrepresent "any" as being only used in negatives and questions.
The first time I read this book (back when I was still living in Cambodia) I had the opportunity of using this knowledge in a classroom. During a reading exercise, a student asked me why the word “any” was used in a positive sentence, and I was able to borrow Michael Lewis’s analysis to explain to that student that the rule he had originally learned was flawed.

Day 13
Michael Lewis, quoting George Allen & Unwin, 1977, writes about the problem of artificial grammar rules, and says:
"Hours are wasted not only on lessons teaching half truths as if they were the whole truths, but on doing exercises which require the student to choose between two constructions both of which can be perfectly acceptable, though one of the two is falsely supposed to be 'wrong'. "
Amazing that the passage Lewis is quoting from is from 1977. I feel like this is still a huge problem nowadays.
It's a problem to a certain extent with some of our textbooks but I feel like it's an even bigger problem with a lot of our tests.
Has anyone else noticed this, or is it just me? I feel like a lot of our tests--particularly the ones for teens and adults--are requiring the students to choose between two forms, and requiring the teacher to mark one as correct and one as incorrect, when in reality both forms are perfectly acceptable.

XXXX Commented:

 True that. I still remember how I had to mark the sentence "I don't use at work" in either BC or EA EOCT as incorrect—even though, not only is it grammatically correct, but is, in actual fact, the only way to sensibly handle your drug addiction. As a colleague remarked, "Using at work is a sign of desperation."
Later in the test, the same student wrote "children make them beds" (instead of "their"). With a heavy heart, I had to mark that one as wrong too.
XXXX commented:
From someone trying to teach S5A right now, all I can say is, "PREACH!" 

XXXX commented:

There is a task in the EOCT test for S6-something (forgot which one) where there are 4 sentences and students need to circle one of the two grammar forms given, but actually both are correct, in each sentence—because the sentences come without context. So everyone gets 4 free points. 

Day 14
I love the dig Michael Lewis takes at Thomson & Martinet here. "This is extremely carelessly written."
XXXX once mentioned to me that he loves how Michael Lewis carries on his feuds with other authors into his teacher training books. And I agree it is one of the delights of reading him.
It's not all one way though. Scott Thornbuy will sometimes rebut Michael Lewis in his own books. In "About Language" by Scott Thornbury (also on the DELTA reading list), Scott Thornbury quotes from "The English Verb" for the purpose of refuting it.
If memory serves, Scott Thornbury was rejecting Michael Lewis's assertion that the so called present simple and past simple tenses have nothing to do with the present or the past.

XXXX Commented:

Can you imagine how our students—who are so eager to learn the hard, unbreakable, 100% true rules of grammar—would react if they were to suddenly discover that even people with PhDs and bodies of published work that could fill whole libraries can't agree on what the rules are ... ?

Day 15
Michael Lewis makes the case that there are no synonyms in grammar. "Difference of form implies difference of meaning."
If memory serves, he reinforces this somewhere later in the book. He says that the language would never be two identical ways to express the same thing. If there were two ways of saying the same thing, one of them would be unnecessary, and become unused.
What do you guys think of this?
I was quite influenced by this book the first time I read it, and it changed my teaching. Before I read this book, when students would ask the question "What's the difference...?" I would usually say: "no difference. They're the same."
After I read this book, I would say, "Hmmm. Well there must be a difference somewhere, because different forms imply different meaning. But what is it? ...."
Often, though, the difference is not immediately obvious to me.
I've collected a few of the questions that have stumped me on my blog:
What is the difference between "hear us sing" vs "hear us singing"
Or: "I saw her cry" Vs "I saw her crying"
Or: "In the Summer" vs "In Summer"
Or: "No, it isn't" vs "No, it is not"
Or: "There isn't" vs "There is no"
Or: "watched my friends swim" vs "watched my friends swimming"
Or: "When I was walking" vs "While I was walking"

XXXX Commented:

I think oftentimes the difference is in prosody: you might want to use one and not the other to keep the rhythm of your speech consistent—or change it to underscore an important point. You might also opt for one instead of the other to avoid repetition: if I've already used "when" in the sentence before, I might go with "while". Then there are subtle differences in mood: in the examples above, the infinitive seems to be more solemn, somber even, in some cases, than the -ing forms. Or it could be just me.

I replied:

Something I mentioned in a previous post--Martin Parrot is definitely of the opinion that native speakers alternate between will and going to for exactly those reasons--for reasons of style and rhythm. Parrot says that Native speakers dislike repeating "going to" several times in succession. And Martin Parrot has some language data to back this claim up. This is in contrast to Michael Lewis's insistence that different forms always have different meanings. 

XXXX replied:

Hm, someone claims that there is a hard rule with absolutely no exceptions—and no data to back this claim up. Sounds totally legit.

Day 16
p. 23
On page 23, Michael Lewis asserts that "Native Speakers do not 'make mistakes' . "
This section ignores Chomsky's competence/performance paradigm. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Michael Lewis writes elsewhere that he is critical of Chomsky's Competence and Performance distinction.
In "The Lexical Approach" ...
...Michael Lewis spends two whole pages (pages 11 and 12) arguing against Chomsky's Competence and Performance distinction. It is impossible to quote the whole two pages, but perhaps the takeaway quote was:
"It is all very well for theorists like Chomsky to say that in performance terms language is a chaos and is not worth studying. The teacher replies: Yes it is this chaos into which are students must plunge."
(Michael Lewis quoting Wilga Rivers on page 11 of The Lexical Approach).
This is a good point. And yet, it does seem to me like native speakers do sometimes have performance issues. Take, for example, the recent interview with Donald Trump about the FBI tapes.
Partial transcript is below:
“I didn’t tape him, you never know what’s happening, when you see what the Obama Administration, and perhaps longer than that, was doing, all of this unmasking and surveillance and you read all about it and I’ve been reading about it the last couple of months, about the seriousness of the and the horrible situation with surveillance all over the place. You been hearing the word unmasking, a word you’ve probably never heard before, so you never know what’s out there and I didn’t tape and I don’t have any tape and I didn’t tape.
“But when (Comey) found out that there maybe are tapes out there, whether it’s governmental tapes or anything else or who knows, I think his story may have changed and you’ll have to look into that because then he’ll have to tell what actually took place at the events. And my story didn’t change, my story was always the straight story, my story was always the truth, but you’ll have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed. But I did not tape.”

Day 17
On page 23, Michael Lewis argues that it's perfectly acceptable to use "they" as a singular pronoun when the gender of the referent is unclear.
Another legacy this book had on me from the first time I read it:
In my own writing, I stopped being self-conscious about using "they" as a singular. And it's made my life so much easier.
How do you guys feel about the use of the singular "they" ?

Day 18
Michael Lewis writes:
"Many people who have gone to school in Britain will remember being told 'use shall with the first person and will with the second and third'. "
British people, is this true?

Day 19
What did you guys think about Michael Lewis's description of "in" versus "at" ?
For me, I have to admit I found myself convinced, and this book completely changed my thinking on "in" and "at".
I'm not sure it's helped me explain it to my students any better, however.

XXXX Commented:

Question is, should you even try to explain it?
(I know, I know, in reality you will anyway, we all will. But for the purposes of the debate about the usefulness of grammar instruction.)
I’ve been watching some Krashen videos lately, and in this one he gives a great answer to the question of whether there’s any role for explicit grammar instruction in language teaching, outlining all the problems of teaching grammar:

The question is at 20:52.
The highlights—for me, personally—are:
* 21:45 Krashen talks about how little grammar can realistically trickle down from linguists and grammarians to students. (And linguists and grammarians don’t know, or understand, all the rules, as Michael Lewis’ fumbling with “in” and “at” illustrates.)
* 22:46 Krashen shows what happens when students try to apply their knowledge of grammar rules in real-life situations: “… by the time you do that, your conversational partner is gone.”

I replied:

This gets back to the old "should we teach grammar at all" debate that pops up with every book we read.
Personally, I like Krashen. But the evidence does show that comprehensible input does not seem to be enough to sort out all of the grammar. (See previous books we've read).
My own personal view is that grammar instruction can help, BUT, the student has to be at least passively familiar with the grammar structure first. You can't just spring a grammar structure out of nowhere and expect the students to produce. They have to encounter it several times in the input first.
Then, once they've begun noticing it, grammar instruction is beneficial.
So I'd still agree with Krashen insofar as we need to pump our students full of reading and listening texts before we can do any grammar work. But I think the grammar work does have a place 

Day 20
Michael Lewis writes:
"To the linguist tense is a technical term. It means that there is a morphological change in the base form of the verb. A verb form which is made with an auxiliary is not, in this technical meaning, a 'tense'.
In this technical sense, then, English verbs have only two tenses, those traditionally called the Present Simple (go) and the Past Simple "went) All other forms are made using auxiliaries, in particular the auxiliaries (be) and (have)."
End quote
To be fair to Michael Lewis, he is not making up this distinction himself. Other books I've read on linguistics have also held to this distinction, and insisted that English technically only has two tenses. So Michael Lewis is not wrong when he says that linguists do, indeed, define tense in this way.
But... isn't this a bit of a pedantic way to define a tense. Does the morphological change of the base verb really matter that much? Couldn't you argue that English has a future tense, even if the verb doesn't change, the meaning does?
And what about irregular verbs like "let", where there is no morphological change for the past? Would we say then that they have no past tense?

Day 21
It looks like half the page is blank. What do you think? Is this intentional, or is this a problem with the PDF copy we got from the drive?

XXXX Commented:

Methinks the author simply wanted the contents of p.54 all on one page.
Day 22
p.53 and Following: Terminology in the Classroom
At my old school in Cambodia, the local Cambodian staff taught the beginning levels, and the expat staff taught the higher levels.
Something I noticed: the Cambodian staff would always refer to the verb forms as V1, V2, and V3 on their worksheets. I used to think this was just lazy, or unsophisticated, so I would always use the "present simple" "past simple" and "past participle".
But Michael Lewis changed my mind on this.
I think he convincingly makes the case that these verb forms are mis-labelled. Even if you don't buy his argument that the past and present tense have nothing to do with the time references, I think he is absolutely right about the "past participle". As Michael Lewis points out, it's used to form the present passive, so why would we call it the "past participle" ?
After reading this books, in all future worksheets I made I always referred to the verb forms as V1, V2, and V3.
What do you guys think? And what do you use on your own materials/worksheets?
Also, one note of caution for anyone thinking about doing the DELTA... when I was doing the DELTA module 1 by distance, we had to refer to the verb forms in the language analysis.
I asked about the names of the verb forms. Since "The English Verb" was on the DELTA approved reading list, and since in that very book Michael Lewis argues against using the verb form names, I wondered if it was acceptable to write V1, V2, and V3 on the DELTA module 1 exam. It turns out, it is not. They still want the traditional names on the test, despite the fact that this book is on their list.

Day 23
Michael Lewis claims that "do" should be taught just like any other auxiliary verb, and not as a special case.
There is, however, at least one special thing about "do" which he neglects to mention.
The auxiliary verb "do" holds the tense and the number of verb. All of the other auxiliaries do as well, of course, but in the case of the dummy auxiliary, this requires that the students perform a transformation on the verb.
For example, in using "does", students have to remember to take the 3rd person singular "s" of the main verb, and transfer it to "does"
In using "did", students have to remember to take the past tense off of the main verb, and transfer it on to "did".
This is perhaps a practical consideration why "do/does/did" is often taught as a special case.

Day 24
One more thought on this.
There's an interesting little tidbit in Rod Ellis's book.
SLA Research and Language Teaching by Rod Ellis
Rod Ellis noted that both native and non-native speakers had difficulties describing a picture in the past tense.
To quote:
Jim Lantolf reports that in his current research both native and non-native speakers found it difficult to sustain the use of the past tense when telling stories based on pictures, even when they were given a cue like “last weekend.” (Ellis p.217 endnote 4)
Interesting, no?
I've caught myself slipping up on this. I'll be trying to model the past tense for a group of students, and I'll be describing a picture in the past tense, and then about halfway through my description I'll realize that I've slipped into the present tense.
Anyone else ever have this experience?
This would seem to support Michael Lewis's view that the so-called present simple and past simple have nothing to do with time references, but simply how immediate the speaker perceives the event as.
Because you can see the picture right in front of you, it is immediate to both the speaker and the listener, and you almost can't help using the present tense to describe it.
As a result of both Michael Lewis's book, and Rod Ellis's book, I've tried to make a general rule for myself: never use pictures to model or elicit the past tense.
...Of course, since most of our textbooks are based upon pictures, this rule is often difficult to follow.

Day 25
Reported Speech.
Ah, reported speech. My arch-nemesis.
How do you guys feel about reported speech?
I tend to really hate units on reported speech because
1). It's really difficult for the students to produce--at least in my experience. They can comprehend it, but they have a hard time keeping track of all the moving parts in free production.
2). For some reason, it shows up in just about every text book. Why do textbook writers love teaching reported speech so much?
It's such a minor grammar point, and it adds almost nothing to communicative abilities. Even if the student can do all the transformations perfectly, they won't make themselves understood any better.
And 3) It's a serious question whether this "rule" really reflects how native speakers actually talk in real life. As Michael Lewis point out on page 71.
In his other book, The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis argues that we ELT teachers should focus less on these obscure grammar points, and focus more on building up their vocabulary and lexis. Because, after all, when communication breakdowns occur in real-life, it's usually because of a vocabulary issue, and not because the student hasn't understood the intricacies of reported speech.
In that book, Michael Lewis uses evidence from the cobuild corpus to examine how native speakers use reported speech in real life. And he finds:
"We do not, typically, manipulate the speaker's words when 'reporting'; we either report the event synoptically, or narrate using the speaker's words" (The Lexical Approach p.136)

Day 26
Here we come to perhaps the most controversial section of the book: Michael Lewis's assertion that the so-called present simple and past simple have nothing to do with time reference, but simply reflect the speaker's perception of the immediateness of the event.
It's a big pill to swallow. It goes against everything we've been taught. And yet... he argues his case well, no?
A counterpoint comes from Scott Thornbury in About Language (another book on the DELTA Reading List)
In Unit 16, Scott Thornbury writes:
“Some writers on grammar argue….that the fundamental difference between the so-called present tense and the so called past tense is nothing to do with time at all: the ‘past tense’ is simply the ‘remote’ form. According to this view, the so-called present simple is simply the unmarked form of the verb—the form of the verb used when no distancing is required” (Thornbury, p. 204).
Although this doesn’t reference Michael Lewis by name, this is pretty much exactly the view Michael Lewis puts forward in his book. Scott Thornbury goes on to imply disagreement with this view, however, by contrasting it with the more conventional view:
“The more conventional view is that the ‘basic’ meaning of the present tense is the present time reference, and the ‘basic’ meaning of the past tense is the past time reference. In other words, the cases where there is a mismatch between time and tense are simply exceptions to a general rule, or examples of a ‘secondary’ meaning of these tenses” (Thornbury, p. 204).

Day 27
It's interesting in this book how Michael Lewis strings together very complex verb clauses, and demonstrates that if you look at each element individually, they all make perfect sense.
Of course, this can also be taken to ridiculous extremes as well.
While reading this book, I was reminded of one of Dave Barry's old columns.
Dave Barry (a humorist who wrote newspaper columns) used to have a section called "Mr. Language person". A reader wrote in with this question:
Q: Speaking of true quotations, please repeat the statement that Sonda Ward of Nashville, Tenn., swears she heard made by a man expressing concern to a woman who had been unable to get a ride to a church function.
A: He said: ``Estelle, if I'd a knowed you'd a want to went, I'd a seed you'd a got to get to go.''
Q: What tense is that, grammatically?
A: That is your pluperfect consumptive.

Day 28
p.85-97: (be) +
Michael Lewis asserts that the so-called present continuous is really not about the present at all, but when we want to emphasize the limited duration of the event.
This is another case where Scott Thornbury disagrees, and this time Scott Thornbury calls Michael Lewis out by name:
From "About Language" by Scott Thornbury
Thornbury quotes Michael Lewis’s view that “Forms containing (be) +-ing express the speaker’s view of the event as having limited duration” (Lewis quoted in Thornbury p. 79). Thornbury goes on to disagree with this view, and instead asserts that: “Perhaps the single common concept—and, hence, primary meaning of the progressive—is that of something ‘in progress’. Notions of ‘temporariness’, ‘incompleteness’ and ‘limited duration’ may be secondary meanings, or implications, of this primary meaning. In other words, when we talk about things ‘in progress’ it is often the case that these things are temporary and/or incomplete, but it is not necessarily the case” (p. 207).
What do you guys think? Lewis or Thornbury on this one?

Day 29
Michael Lewis talks about the difference between "I live in Oxford" and "I'm living in Oxford".
This is something else that I've taken from this book into my own teaching. Whenever the question comes up of the present simple versus the present continuous, I often use this with my students. I tell them, "You live in Vietnam. I am living in Vietnam." and then get them to try to figure out why the sentences are different.

XXXX Commented:

This has got to be one of the most frequently brought-up grammar points in all of EFL as they asked me this question during the interview for my CELTA course, and I'm pretty sure those are standardized.

I replied:

How did you explain it? Would you agree with Michael Lewis's explanation?

XXXX replied:

I used the interviewer's situation as an example: "You're *living in Vietnam* because you moved there at some point and will, no doubt, be moving somewhere else before long. Your Vietnamese colleagues, by contrast, *live in Vietnam* because they've lived in Vietnam their whole lives—for them, it's a permanent situation." That's all you really need to say.
So, yes, I do agree with the author—although I'm not a fan of his meandering explanations, using voodoo terms such as "psychological time" and the like.

Day 30  XXXX Posted
Page 89
Lewis categorizes contrasting pairs here, and while I don't disagree with his organization, I do have a comment to make.
The way Lewis writes makes it seem that "I'm thinking so." isn't grammatical, because he puts 'think' in category 4 rather than category 3, which refers to two possible uses with different connotational meanings.
I've personally used this phrase and heard it used by others quite naturally, so I'm not saying that Lewis is wrong, but that he probably could have chosen a better example.
Anyone else ever use this phrase?

I commented:

I got into a similar discussion once at my old school. The topic of the conversation wasn't Lewis specifically, but the usually textbook prohibition that state verbs such as "think" should not be put in the present continuous.
One of the teachers said he thought "think" often got put in the present continuous. But as he was from the South, he thought maybe this might be a Southern dialect. He gave the example of "I'm thinking you shouldn't do that."
At the time, I remember thinking "typical southern hillbilly". But since that discussion, it's stuck in my mind, and so I've actually caught myself saying similar expressions, for example "I'm thinking the answer is..."
XXXX replied:

I hate that rule about stative verbs. As Lewis says, verb forms are used when speakers are drawing attention to certain aspects.
If a friend recommends a film to me and I'm in the middle of watching it, it's natural for me to say "I'm loving this movie!", for any number of reasons. Same thing with liking and thinking.

Day 31 XXXX Posted

Page 99
"New members of the closed class do not appear (it is difficult to imagine a new pronoun...)"
It thought this line was funny, considering the recent push to use new gender-neutral pronouns like ze, vis, and hir. Looking at developments such as Canada's Bill C-16, it seems almost certain that new pronouns will be adopted in the future.

XXXX Commented:

I find the push to adopt new pronouns funny. You can't change a global language such as English by decree.

XXXX replied:

Funny, indeed. I would even say frightening if one considers the prospect of universities attempting to force their usage through legislation.

I replied:

Michael Lewis was writing this book way back in 1980 something, and he obviously had no idea what the future would hold. And yet... it is precisely this argument that opponents of the bill use. They claim it is impossible to force a new pronoun into the language because pronouns are a closed class linguistically.
I understand that a lot of people are ideologically attached to these new pronouns, but it's still an open question whether they could ever catch on. And if they did, I think it would be a linguistic first.

Day 32
New Ling Space video talks about the different meanings of must:
There's a lot in here, and I'm not sure I understood all of it. But they seem to be in agreement with Michael Lewis that the apparent two different meanings of must have a common core meaning--"I assert that it is necessary that..."

Day 33
Chapter 13 & 14: The Modal Auxiliaries
Here is a grammar auction activity I made based on the information Michael Lewis gives about modal verbs, semi-modals, and the difference between them.
I made this worksheet 3 years ago, after I read this book the first time. All of the information in here comes pretty much straight from chapters 13-14. (I recently re-used it with an S6B class)

Day 34
Michael Lewis writes: "This contrasts with the traditional view that certain modal auxiliaries were 'the past tense' of others (can/could, will/ would , shall/should, may/ might)."
I agree that "could" is often presented as the past tense of "can". "Would" is sometimes presented as the past tense of "will". But I don't think I've ever taught out of a textbook that presented "should" as the past tense of "shall" or "might" as the past tense of "may".
Is Michael Lewis making up straw-men here to argue against? or has anyone ever come across a textbook that actually argues this?

XXXX Commented:
Yeah, that might have been the least relatable part of the book to me. Never seen 'should' or 'might' presented in that way.

Day 35
There are a handful of things that have stuck with me from this book since I read it last, and I the part about the ambiguity between the passive voice and the adjectives is one of them. Before I read this book, I used to often get confused about whether certain constructions were adjectives or the passive voice. (Mostly the examples Michael Lewis mentions: "was closed", "was opened", "was amazed", "was surprised", and other similar ones.)
Michael Lewis says that the ambiguity between the passive voice and adjective forms are natural, and in fact embracing this ambiguity can help the students to better understand the passive verb if we understand the passive as a sort of adjective describing the noun.
I'm not sure this has helped my classroom explanations at all, but it's made me personally a lot less concerned about identifying the difference between the adjective use and the passive use.

Day 36
Michael Lewis writes: "As a matter of convention, in written English only the full forms of auxiliaries are used..."
Obviously this dates the book. Back in 1986, Michael Lewis had no idea that the Internet was coming.

Google Slides for Book Club Meeting
Slideshow: slides, pub

Video Review:
Video review here and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky July 2017 - The Emerging World Order

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