A different way to teach grammar?

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woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Mon Oct 13, 2008 11:54 pm

That's fine, but thus you end up explaining exactly the same thing as everyone else - in unmarked sentences it is past, and in sentences marked for conditionality (as your examples are) it will represent a future situation. It seems easier to explain it as the past in the first place because learners tend to mainly deal with unmarked sentences for a long time before making much use of marked ones.

The whole Lewis system seems to be an attempt to say that one thing cannot be another thing in another situation, which is a rotten thing to teach.

JuanTwoThree
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Post by JuanTwoThree » Wed Oct 15, 2008 7:30 pm

It just doesn't seem rigorous enough to call "went" the past of "go", except as a quick fix in class or for the sake of convenience. Especially when it's not being the past.

"Go" is the base form. Or some such term. It's only the present simple when it is the present simple, the bare infinitive when it is the bare infinitive, the imperative when it is the imperative, the root of the -ing form when it is and so on. We don't arbitrarily assign to it a name which is one of its applications, even if that is what it mostly is. But people do just that with "went".

Another analogy: you have a velvet-covered cube. Mostly you sit on it. Often you sit on the floor and put plates of food and a candle on the cube. You sometimes even just put it in the corner and admire its stark beauty. Now, you can call it a chair if you like. But it isn't one. What to call it?

(You could call the cube Barry. ""Let's sit on Barry. Let's have dinner on Barry. And you could call "went" Barry. "The past is formed by the Barry form of the verb, as is the verb in 2nd conditionals. In "Yesterday I went to the cinema" Barry is functioning as the past, in "If I went to the cinema tomorrow" Barry is being the subjunctive")

I'd sooner go for "second form" as a pure descriptor. Lewis is trying to see a link between the applications of this form in the past, subjunctive and the "polite" and has come up with "remote", however unsatisfactory this may be to some. But it's not a cop-out. Which I think using the term "Past tense", outside a world where it's an imprecise rough-and-ready name for something, is.

On a practical note. When Spanish-speaking students do get told that "If I went to the cinema tomorrow" is confusingly (for them) called "If plus the past simple" only because that's the name of the second column of the irregular verbs but there isn't another name for it and it has two functions: one is to be the past (hence its nickname) and the other is to be unreal, it's like seeing a light come on in the minds of people who get it.

I think linguists should be able to explain what the hell the "past tense" is doing here: "If I went to the cinema tomorrow". That's not the past, why call it the past?

fluffyhamster
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Post by fluffyhamster » Wed Oct 15, 2008 8:49 pm

Sorry JTT but I call my Barries Nigels, and this other teacher I know calls his Colleague Bonkers. People will always just agree to disagree when it comes to inventing nice easy useful terms for plush velvet-covered furniture!

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Thu Oct 16, 2008 1:15 am

People say that in conditionals we use past tense forms, rather than say we use the past tense itself, in general. They say the velvet covered box is a make-shift chair. I don't see where the big problem lies. In conditional sentences we have entered a new world of make believe, and the tenses don't work quite the same. Why should they?

If I teach a bunch of learners that "I sat on the chair" is the remote form, then they have no way of knowing whether it is remote in future or past direction.

The "paper cup" I am slurping coffee from is made out of card. Is it worth making a new word? Woodpulpiproduct cups?

fluffyhamster
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Post by fluffyhamster » Thu Oct 16, 2008 2:40 pm

woodcutter wrote:If I teach a bunch of learners that "I sat on the chair" is the remote form, then they have no way of knowing whether it is remote in future or past direction.
You can't just leave it at 'English has a remote form' - you'll need to present contexts (note the plural - your point "had to" have at least the single example, but the example only "proves" that point and no more), such as JTT has provided (not sure that I'd mention JTT's traditional "function" (i.e. form) labels in the same breath though, unless specifically asked to). I'd personally interpret the decontextualized/lacking co-textual time adverbials 'I sat on the chair' as meaning/referring to "an event in the past", and this is surely what most learners will come to think too, given enough exposure (to authentic and more extensive discourse); then there is the option of brief translation into L1, or supplying parenthetical "contextualizing" timewords if necessary when they're absent (if students can't work out things from formally "less explicit/extensive" contexts/co-texts) - I'm being kinda Chinesey here.
The "paper cup" I am slurping coffee from is made out of card. Is it worth making a new word? Woodpulpiproduct cups?
That would be a distinction that few would be bothered or consider worthwhile to make - the original 'paper cup' suffices perfectly well and will cause no confusion, unlike 'woodpulpipapproduct cup', or calling 'the remote form (as used in the if-clause of a "second" conditional structure) (is) (actually and just so you know, formally) "the past" (=past tense?)'.

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Fri Oct 17, 2008 4:33 am

I suppose that someone sometime has imagined "paper" to have a broader meaning than it has due to "paper" cups.

That we all need to present the contexts is exactly my point. Thus we are basically arguing over a name. Shall we use the name of the most basic function, the past, or give a possibly less refutable but somewhat unclear name to these forms. This does not represent a "new approach to grammar".

Besides which, the whole "politeness" area makes things more confusing, since normally "remote" forms are not possible on main verbs in requests, only for could/would and thoughts which could literally be in the past anyway.

JuanTwoThree
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Post by JuanTwoThree » Fri Oct 17, 2008 5:40 am

I suppose it is tilting at windmills to expect "went" to really be called anything but the "past (form)" by the vast majority of people.

So what is everybody's understanding of why the second form (Barry) does crop up in "Did you know that she was married?" "I wanted to ask you a question" "Did Madam want a carrier bag?" " It's time we went" "If I were you" "If we went tomorrow" and so on? Most answers would have to be couched in Lewisian terms, even by those who baulk at his terminology, unless they wanted to delve into Anglo-Saxon strong verbs and the disappearance of a distinct past subjunctive form (which wouldn't explain every instance of non-past second forms anyway).

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Fri Oct 17, 2008 6:30 am

It doesn't matter what terms you couch them in, you have to learn how those things work case by case. You can't simply think "aha I'm being remote in some abstract way so I'll start chucking past tense forms about". Remote can be forward and back, right? As a general rule telling people what to say, it is about as useful as having the word "reft", meaning go either left or right, when giving directions.

JuanTwoThree
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Post by JuanTwoThree » Fri Oct 17, 2008 8:09 am

But now we're back on the stuck record of "But what's the use of this to learners?".

I suppose that "you" in that last post means "an imaginary student". The analysis that a particular use of the second form is remote or irrealis is probably a post hoc one and may be of little help to learners. That doesn't bother me in the least; I know a great deal more about language in general and English in particular than I need to know to teach it. Some of what I know is almost totally inapplicable. Mind you, my students do get a watered down Lewis take on things sometimes, it helps some people to make sense of the things they read and hear.

I think that a bit of judicious translation of Eoropean languages with a subjunctive is useful. European students who see that their 24 forms (at least!) of one verb more or less get reduced to, let's say, "have, has, had, will have, would have" soon get to spot that "Yesterday I had money" and "I wish I had money" are not the same "had". They don't have to learn this case by case, a little shove in the right direction can do a lot of good. And believe me "wish is followed by the past" with no further implicit or explicit explanation is downright dangerous. To my mind the terminology doesn't particularly help.

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Sun Oct 19, 2008 11:56 pm

So I hope we can then all agree that saying "turn right/left or sit about being polite when you come to the crossroads" is of no use to the people who do not know the way?

It is of little use to post-hoc drivers as well, I strongly suspect, but if it stops being offered up as a panacea for learners on these forums I will be content.

(by contrast, "go right unless you see an CONDITIONAL sign" is very helpful. There's no easy route through the suburbs of politeness.)

JuanTwoThree
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Post by JuanTwoThree » Mon Oct 20, 2008 5:36 am

Yes, but you have to accept that you want to call it "Turn right" even when it's "Turn left" because it's usually "Turn right".

I think you have stepped over an invisible line. I'd very much rather you didn't tell me (look how glacially remote I'm being) what is of little use to me whatever "you strongly suspect", let alone what will be useful to my learners. You don't and can't know what works for another person. Lewis is highly influential on theory and has practical applications for a great many people who post here, most of whom have never told you what and how to teach.

I think it's high time you explained why the "past form" is used in the following: "If we went to the cinema, we'd see a film". Not what you'd tell a student, because that depends on any number of factors, but why you think it is how it is.

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Mon Oct 20, 2008 11:43 pm

I don't know why you chose that example - in conditional sentences past forms convey a sense that something isn't a real possibility. As to why the form came to be that way - that isn't relevant to current English. Invisible origins are just curious history.

Either the "remote" idea is the "real reason" behind the way the forms work in English grammar or it isn't. If it isn't, and I think so, then it can be of no use to anyone except as a new angle to look at things through. Many threads used to be hijacked with the idea that this "real" grammar would solve all related problems.

Can you imagine if someone found the English-speakers in the remote (!)mountains? A tribe that makes no distinction between past and future! The eskimos would lose their throne. Has anyone come across this astonishing grammatical pattern in other tongues?

The modals "would" and "could" work like that. See an isolated sentence with those, and you can't if tell the meaning is future or past. Can't we admit that with the vast majority of main verbs this is much less the case?
There are often situations when you can't use the "remote" form to refer to the future, and times when you can't use it to be polite. * "Had you eaten yet sir?". I don't know if there are times when a particular past form absolutely must not refer to the past (i.e you can kick off a past sentence with "so then, if we won the lottery, why didn't we buy anything?""did you want a coffee?" might refer to yesterday etc). Thus, remoteness is a misleading term, because the three leaves of the trinity are not at all evenly shaped.

JuanTwoThree
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Post by JuanTwoThree » Tue Oct 21, 2008 4:57 am

What's staring you in the face is the link between the three uses of the second form, a link which is by no means "curious history".

BTW your use of that term is another example of you deciding what is and isn't important for other people. The history of the gradual and almost total disappearance of a distinct past subjunctive explains "If I were you" and it's useful for some students who speak a language with a subjunctive to know that. Of course I'm not telling you that that's how to teach it.


The non-presentness of the past is clear. The non-presentness of hypothetical situations is also clear. Polite forms are a voluntary decision to embrace this non-presentness so that requests and feelings are couched in hypothetical terms. Most examples are the past, of course, but that's no reason for linguists to say to themselves that the other two are uses of the past for which there is no explanation, whatever jobbing teachers may tell their students.

That link is more or less is what Lewis calls remoteness. It's not a panacea but nor is it baloney just because you don't get it or can't see how it can be used in class.

As you say:

" in conditional sentences past forms convey a sense that something isn't a real possibility"

Why do you think that is? After all this is a discussion forum for teachers, called Applied Linguistics. It's not an unreasonable request to ask you for something more than a stock answer given to intermediate students.

woodcutter
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Post by woodcutter » Wed Oct 22, 2008 12:03 am

I'm not trying to defend "central meanings" in this thread, and thus I don't have to give reasons for why things sometimes have particular meanings in different environments. They just do. It is sometimes important NOT to explain why, and not to encourage people to ask fruitless questions. I hold that to be a general truth, I'm not trying to run anybody else's classroom. However, the things we believe about language clearly have implications.

I have, admittedly, in the past attempted to defend a central meaning of "past" for these forms, but I have since given up. Sometimes there is an observable connection with a more common form, and sometimes that connection becomes irrelevant. Lewis attempts to maintain the philosophy of "central meanings" by creating "remoteness". However an umbrella term which contains stone cold opposites is not very helpful. If we had the adjective "bigsmall" it would have a central meaning of sorts - it would mean a difference from average in size. However if in our language it was used in simple phrases like "He was a bigsmall man" - as many prosaic sentences use past tense - we would be forced to always scrabble around for the contexts which helped us decide whether the man was big or small. If in most cases the man was big, then any person seeking to understand would think of the word as meaning big, with certain exceptions, and would explain it thus. The umbrella meaning isn't useful unless there are situations in which it really signifies either bigness and smallness, and with the past/future I don't think they occur.

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Post by JuanTwoThree » Wed Oct 22, 2008 7:50 pm

I don't think there's a useful teachable core meaning to the three main uses of the second form either.

I know there's a useful teachable core meaning to the three main uses of the second form.

Lorikeet found a Lewis-informed approach to pulling the strands of already learnt structures together to be useful. Lolwhites made the same comment. I find it a useful way of explaining why the three things exist and what they have in common. To the right people. Obviously it's not a starting point for teaching any of the structures. You don't have to use the word "remote" if you object so strongly to it.

The non-presentness of the past (I went to the cinema yesterday" tells us nothing about the here-and-now) , of hypotheses ("If I went to the cinema" tells us nothing about the here-and-now) and of couching polite requests and tentative suggestions in hypothetical terms ("Were you thinking of going to the cinema?" tries to place a bit of space between it and the here-and-now) is not something that I find blindingly arcane myself.

You seem to be saying that even if an intelligent and curious student asked you to explain why the "past form" cropped up in these situations you would give two possible answers:

One from a French Resistance Film: "I'm sorry Pierre, we are operating on a need-to-know basis so I can't give you that information. I can't even confirm or deny that I have that information myself. Or that it even exists. Sorry, old chap"


The other from a zombie film: " Oh, that's an exceptional use of the past form. So's that. That's another. That's another. They're all over the place. Aaarrgh".


Dismissing as "not useful" or "irrelevant" or "not very helpful" an explanation which three people on this tiny thread alone have in fact found useful strikes me as yet another attempt to lay down the law. And again you're not limiting yourself to your opinion about other teachers' praxis. Which might be fair enough. It also seems to be a comment on the idea's usefulness to teachers even if it never reaches the classroom. That or you can't see the point of having any insights into language beyond the teachable ones.

Ok, so you don't, can't or won't get it. But don't knock it in such blanket terms. You could even bring yourself to say "Well, there is this idea that links the structures but I'm not sure about it myself. This bloke Lewis and a lot of other people reckon that........"

Do you really refuse to anawer students' questions or just block your ears and repeat "Exception, Exception, Exception"?

It seems to me that one approach takes "Teacher as Nanny" to its limits. Or beyond them. The other perpetuates the idea that students should be told half truths or downright lies whatever their level. Even to the point of the teacher convincing him/herself that it really is "an exception" and there's no point in thinking any different even for the teacher's own purposes: "Teacher as Glorified Student" or "I'm not going to fill my head with ideas that I can't use in class"

The fact is that there are very few exceptions, just more complex concepts. I like to know what they are, for my own purposes. And this isn't even one of them

The thread is about different ways of teaching grammar. Not alternatives to teaching grammar.

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