Michael Lewis: The English Verb

We are used to having access to all kinds of information on the internet, so it’s quite surprising to see that finding something about one of the most fascinating people in ELT isn’t an easy task. Michael Lewis doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and you can’t watch his talks on YouTube. All we have online are a few snippets from blog posts and comments made by people who knew him.

Let me share my favourite discoveries: Lewis was called an ‘ELT recluse’ and a ‘fashionably dressed beat poet’ (here); he was fuming at Scott Thornbury because of what the latter wrote in his book (here); he enjoyed scolding people for irrelevant questions and also managed to ‘send Italian academic gurus into rage’ (here). After his death in March 2019, The TEFLology Podcast compiled all known biographical information on Lewis on this page.

Michael Lewis: The English Verb

Not only did Michael Lewis lead an eventful life, but he was also a brilliant author. His most famous book is The Lexical Approach, which was first published in 1993. Lewis tackles various topics in it and provides valid criticism of coursebooks and the traditional grammar syllabus. English learners are expected to know the rules of reported speech and conditionals in order to pass exams, but when they travel to English-speaking countries, they are surprised to hear the locals use ‘incorrect’ expressions that don’t conform to the rules stated in coursebooks. Lewis also makes some really important observations about pre-service teacher training courses like the CELTA in The Lexical Approach.

Interestingly, the man who promoted prioritising lexis in language teaching had previously written a book on grammar. It may all sound like a contradiction, but let me tell you that The English Verb is anything but a typical grammar reference book. In fact, it’s one of the most thought-provoking ELT titles I have ever read. Its premise is simple: English grammar is taught incorrectly and there is a better way. Michael Lewis certainly didn’t shy away from making strong statements.

The English Verb isn’t just a rant about the state of English teaching. Lewis provides clear examples of what’s wrong and proposes solutions. One of his pet peeves was unhelpful terminology. For example, why do we keep talking about ‘past participles’ when they can be used to talk about the present and the future? That’s unnecessarily confusing for students, and Lewis suggests that it would be more helpful to refer to them as ‘compound forms’.

Lewis also mentions the fact that learners are sometimes taught incorrect rules. He uses ‘some’ and ‘any’ as an example. It’s common to see a coursebook claim that ‘some’ is used just in positive sentences, and that ‘any’ appears only in questions and negative sentences. Students are taught that rule even though it’s blatantly untrue. According to Lewis, teachers often provide unhelpful explanations and write off deviations from the norm as ‘exceptions’, which makes students think that learning English is an extremely difficult task.

The main portion of the book deals with verbs. Lewis wasn’t a fan of approaches that list different uses of each verb form, so he decided to create explanations that cover all the uses. Why do we use present progressive to talk about actions happening right now and also for future arrangements? Lewis came up with some mind-blowing ideas to describe why that happens. I was really impressed by his analysis, which helped me understand English grammar a little more. It’s very important to emphasise that The English Verb isn’t a book for students; it is aimed at open-minded teachers who wish to improve their language awareness.

There are also a few glimpses of ideas that would be later developed in The Lexical Approach. For example, Lewis wasn’t impressed by describing ‘let’s’ as part of “the imperative” and suggested dealing with it as a lexical item. By the way, when Merriam-Webster selected ‘they’ as Word of the Year 2019, I immediately remembered The English Verb because Michael Lewis promoted using the singular ‘they’ more than 30 years before that. He was an innovative thinker who didn’t like seeing language restricted by unnecessary rules.

Even though The English Verb focuses on a serious topic, it’s an entertaining read. Lewis was an outspoken person and he was more than happy to express his disdain when he didn’t like something. Nowadays, you can see Twitter spats between academics on just about any topic, but I think it’s too easy to call somebody a fool online. Lewis was at the peak of his powers before the internet, so he had to settle scores the old school way. His book is full of digs at other writers, and it’s obvious that Lewis enjoyed tearing their work apart. ELT literature doesn’t always provide a lot of excitement, so it’s always great to encounter little gems like The English Verb that are both informative and entertaining.

2 thoughts on “Michael Lewis: The English Verb

  1. Thanks for pulling all this together, Martin. A fascinating overview. I sent materials (photocopiable worksheets on lexis and grammar) off to ELT publishers in the early 90s. Michael came back immediately, suggesting we meet up in a pub (no surprise there). A possible project came to nothing, and OUP contacted me (in a more formal manner!) with a book idea. He was abrasive, yes, and provocative, but I never found it offensive. We kept in touch for a while and he stayed with me in York (where his dad lived at the time). I still remember him taking out a rather fine silver ballpoint at our dining table, writing ‘If I were you, I’d take a break’, and asking me where I’d split the sentence for teaching purposes. I fell into the trap, of course, and split it into two clauses: ‘If I were you + I’d take a break.’ “But think a little, Ken,” he replied, in manner that suggested I rarely engaged in such an activity, “What could a student possibly say after ‘If I were you’ except ‘I’d’? So stop thinking grammatically, and teach the chunk, ‘If I were you, I’d …’” As Hugh Dellar suggested, you don’t often come across people (in life or in the media) who will constantly challenge our assumptions.

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