Some white lies about grammar

With some spare time on my hands, I’m going through a brand-new edition of the pre-intermediate coursebook we are going to pilot next year. Also, I’m checking this edition against the previous one to see if some useful adjustments have been made. I’m especially curious about the grammar sections. What I secretly hope for is a less prescriptive view on some of the grammar points.

The thing is that particularly at the pre-intermediate level, some areas of grammar are presented in a somewhat questionable way. I guess the reason why it is so is that coursebook writers simply don’t want to confuse our B1 students by presenting too many exceptions to the rules. And we teachers are expected to confirm their white lies.

However, some of our students turn out to be cleverer than we originally thought. Moreover, they immerse themselves in English every day. As a result, some very hard-to-shake-off questions may fly around in the classroom from time to time.

Here are some examples I have in mind:

  • Contrast: present simple and present continuous

White lie 1: We don’t use the present continuous with certain verbs. They include: hate, love, like, need, prefer, want, wish …

Students’ reaction to this is immediate: “And what about ‘I’m loving it.’ – a slogan you can hear in the famous advertisement for McDonald’s?”

I really like this explanation I came across on the internet:

The sentence is as grammatical as McDonald’s foodstuffs are palatable – in other words, not at all. But then many advertising slogans are ungrammatical since this can make them more memorable.

Still, the seed of doubt has already been planted into your students’ little heads …

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  • Contrast: past simple and past continuous (a nightmare I discussed in detail here on my blog).
Výstřižek

And this FB post inspired the aforementioned blog post.

White lie 2: We use the past continuous to describe a scene in the past. 

This is something my students don’t usually struggle with. They accept the truth and they are happy it usually works.

But then … BANG! Check out the opening sentences of two short stories by Ernest Hemingway:

  1. It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
  2. An old man with steel-rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road.

I can only hope my students will never bump into The First Forty-Nine Stories collection because then I’d have to justify some lies. I’d have to explain that there are exceptions to rules or that this is simply the way language is used. But I tell you what; even I am confused!

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  • Must and have to

White lie 3: *Must* often expresses the feeling and wishes of the speaker. *Have to* often expresses external obligation. 

Really? :-/ If you want your students to believe this unconditionally, tell them to avoid all public places such as constructions sites, airports, swimming pools, banks, etc.

Remember: PUBLIC PLACES have to be BE AVOIDED! 

Výstřižek

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  • Comparative adjectives

White lie 4: If a two-syllable adjective ends in a consonant plus -y, we drop the – y and add -ier, as in friendly > friendlier.

Really? :-/ Well, I strongly recommend that you keep your students away from any corpora.

Výstřižek4

Výstřižek3

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White lie 5: Corpora could also be lethally dangerous if you wanted to make your students believe some lies about quantifiers, such the one that fewer is used with countable nouns whereas less is used with uncountable nouns, which is one of the truths presented in many pre-intermediate coursebooks. But is it really that simple?

Výstřižek

Výstřižek2

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Some other nightmares white lies are, for example, the rules about reported speech, which I write about here, or the past perfect, which I discussed with my PLN on Facebook back in November 2016:

Výstřižek

Well, I must say I’m a bit disappointed; as far as the authenticity of language is concerned, no significant adjustments have been made in the latest edition of the aforementioned coursebook, apart from those regarding the design of grammar charts and boxes. So, next year, again, I’ll have to repeat the same lies and hope that my students won’t see through them.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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16 Responses to Some white lies about grammar

  1. Tyson Seburn says:

    The general question always remains: are we aiming to teach the traditional grammar rules or what people actually use when speaking (a bit less so with academic written context, I believe)? I’ve always suggested to students, particularly lower level by definition: once you know the grammar rules and can work with them consistently, then you can play with language and choose to use ways that you hear others do. Just consider your audience.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hana Tichá says:

    “Are we aiming to teach the traditional grammar rules or what people actually use when speaking?” A very important question, Tyson. The problem is that people use different versions of English, so which English would you teach in the context of an L2 classroom in the Czech Republic, for example? But then, I think you partially answer the question when you say: “Once you know the grammar rules and can work with them consistently, then you can play with language..” I’m absolutely loving this and I’ll definitely quote you in my classroom. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      I think it’s the English that they’ll most likely use/encounter in their target context i.e. when they will use English. If that widely varies, then I’d probably pick the UK as a baseline, which is closer to you than other predominantly English-speaking countries. Then individualise for particular student interests or really, have them explore those particular interests themselves and report back to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cheryl Fretz says:

    You don’t need to REPEAT the lies – you can tell your students that they are oversimplifications, and that, as Tyson says, vary with context and formality. English rules are rarely black-and-white, and it’s important for students to know that. If they’re doing an exam, for example, “If I were you” is always the correct choice. If they’re speaking in an informal situation, they can say “if I was you” all they want, and they should be told that some people will see “if I was you” as a mark of a lack of education. Equip your students for real life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your comment, Cheryl. As my favorite blogger would put it, it was a bit of a tongue-in-the-cheek post but you are absolutely right – students should know that the rules are only oversimplifications. By the way, I’m not a good liar. 🙂

      Like

  4. M. Makino says:

    Love this post. I have an inkling the “more friendly” version of “friendlier” occurs more often when “friendly” means “compatible”. Your corpus results make clear that it’s not a “rule”, of course. Does your institution make you use grammar coursebooks? Most of mine do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Oh yeah! I didn’t really dig into the meanings of more friendly vs. friendlier but the number of hits for *more friendly* was a little suspicious at first sight so there surely must be a snag. Yes, my institution expects me to cover a certain amount of the coursebook pages per year. However, what I do then is up to me so I’d be lying if I said that my hands are completely tied. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. eflnotes says:

    hi Hana
    i am reminded here of a saying that is used for “models”, for which we can easily substitute with “pedagogical grammars” – All models are wrong, some are useful : )
    ta
    mura

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tim Julian says:

    Interesting article -thank you! I think the point about the public signs doesn’t invalidate the general must / have to distinction though. In a sense the sign “embodies” the authority that put it there, so in that sense it is an obligation imposed by the speaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      A fair point, Tim. But imagine having to explain this to a rather low-level student. My view is that maybe it would be easier to include a little ‘observation’ (as opposed to ‘rule’) that *must* is often seen in signs. Also, I didn’t really want to invalidate any distinctions; I’m only implying that the rules are incomplete and that we teachers must/have to deal with it. 🙂 Anyway, many thanks for stopping by.

      Like

  7. Eddie Estry says:

    “I’m loving it” is perfectly permissible because the semantic value of “love” in this situation equates to “really enjoy”. Of course, when referring to the state of being in love, such an utterance as, “I’m loving you” would not be permissible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      I see your point, Eddie, The question which bothers me, though, is how permissible this answer would be on standardized tests and exams, which my students have to take. What I’m driving at is that if the coursebooks haven’t been able to adjust to the new usages of English yet, have the tests?

      Like

      • What about: “How are you liking the comments on this blog?”

        I think what you have hit upon here is important: tests and books (and some teachers) don’t update with the times. English, like all languages, changes and is malleable. It would be a challenge, but perhaps a good one, to find a way to allow this flexibility in tests. This is why locally produced materials and assessments are gnwrally superior.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Trapped in a dichotomy – some more thoughts on grammar and coursebooks | How I see it now

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