E-Prime

Just under a year ago, my sister Delaney asked me to read and help edit her senior thesis project—an essay about her year volunteering at a local youth tutoring center. “You gotta help me, Amanda,” she pleaded. “I can’t use the verb to be.”

“That’s weird,” I said. English uses to be not only to define states of being, but also as an auxiliary verb, a necessary component of many verb conjugations. Without to be, light is neither a particle, nor a wave. Without to be, I will not be! I scowled. “That can’t literally be what your teacher wants. She probably just doesn’t want you to use passive voice, like, the milk was spilled, as opposed to, I spilled the milk.”

“No!” Delaney huffed. “I can’t use to be at all! I’ll get marked down! Help!”

So I helped, but I still didn’t understand what was wrong with a sentence like, “The program provides after-school tutoring to youth who are considered at risk for low academic achievement, poor school attendance, and high dropout rate.” I understood encouraging Delaney to think and write more directly, clearly, and concisely, but I didn’t understand advocating for to be’s removal altogether. In the end, I encouraged Delaney to keep what I considered to be a few perfectly innocent and justified to be’s in the edited draft.

Can’t use the verb to be. Ludicrous!

Almost a year later, while tumbling down a Google rabbit hole, I stumbled upon E-Prime, as in, English Prime. In the 1940s, a semanticist named D. David Bourland Jr. devised E-Prime to exclude all forms of the verb to be from the English language. Bourland argued that most, if not all, usage of to be not only uselessly clutters written English, but also perniciously fails to distinguish between fact and opinion, objectivity and subjectivity, and is used to avoid attributing agency. Take, for example, the following:

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. The first little pig was lazy. He built his house out of straw. The second little pig was somewhat lazy too, and built his house out of sticks. Then, the rest of the day was spent playing together. The third little pig was industrious. He worked all day and built his house out of bricks. It was a red house. It was that night, when the pigs were sleeping in their houses, that the wolf came. The straw and stick houses were blown down by the wolf’s great huffing and puffing, and the little pigs inside were eaten. But the third little pig was safe. The wolf wasn’t able to blow down his little brick house.

In E-Prime, this would read:

Once upon a time, there existed three little pigs. The first little pig didn’t want to work, so he built his house out of straw. The second little pig worked a little harder, and built his house out of sticks. Then, they spent the rest of the day playing together. The third little pig worked hard all day and built his house out of red bricks. That night, when the little pigs slept in their houses, the wolf came. With great huffing and puffing, the wolf blew down the straw and stick houses and ate the little pigs inside. But the wolf couldn’t blow down the little brick house, and the third little pig survived.

On a purely quantitative level, the E-Prime version is more concise (120 vs. 114 words). The E-Prime version also corrects the structural problems of the normal English version, like passive voice: “the straw and stick houses were blown down.”

But most importantly, the E-Prime version communicates the writer’s subjectivity, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact. For example, “the little pig was lazy” is not allowed; the writer must instead clarify the source of their judgement: “the little pig didn’t want to work.” Thus, writers and readers avoid the mistake of misrepresenting subjective experience and judgement with the objective, fundamental nature of things. This motivation resembles another pedagogical writing technique: show, don’t tell, which writers employ to enable readers to experience a story through sensory input rather than through the writer’s exposition. “Amanda is in love with Chris” reads very differently than “Every time Chris looks into Amanda’s eyes, her heart catches, and tingles ripple down her neck and arms.”

I’m not advocating for E-prime all the time. It’s not colloquial or poetic. Without to be, we wouldn’t have “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But I do understand why Delaney’s teacher challenged her students to learn how to think and write analytical essays in E-Prime. Like show, don’t tell, E-Prime is a useful pedagogical tool that forces inexperienced thinkers and writers to better define their terms and always take responsibility for their opinions. If only those representing our highest office were similarly challenged. (“Sad!”)

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/06/2017.

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6 Responses to E-Prime

  1. Klaus, Germany, Stuttgart area says:

    I read this column and thought after a quarter of it that this was a rather strange advice to require of
    students who have nearly finished their school career the disuse of a basic verb.
    I remembered that long ago, I think it was in the 4th grade in elementary school,
    in context of how to transform a boring essay just into a more vivid one
    one advice from my mom – an elementary school teacher – was to replace the German equivalent of “to be” into other
    verbs and use more adverbs and adjectives.
    So reading further in the essay I learned that the purpose to require a specific word usage was a different one
    compared to what I learned at primary school.

    The goal to better differentiate between subjectivity and objectivity,
    might overburden an average 9 year old but normally not a young adult.

    So the exactly same request had different purposes dependent on whom and in what circumstance it was used.

    I could imagine that this holds true even in a more generalized form where I see two ways to apply it.

    First, a lot of newly given advices/rules/laws aiming at a specific purpose often result in an unwanted negative outcome
    because the underlying circumstances, cultures, implicit assumed social contracts or even sometimes religious convictions
    are different from cases where previously similar advises where given and the outcome was positive.

    Second, if the real purpose of an advice/rule/law is not communicated for whatever reason, or the communicated purpose is pretended then it is more difficult to find similarities from the past in order to support or oppose to the planned measures.

  2. justme says:

    Cool article. 🙂

  3. Tom Zupancic says:

    The utility of excluding the concept of the verb ‘to be’: I am not buying it. We are of like mind, right? Whoever it was who conceived this is wrong. They were wrong. Many like them have been wrong before. Undoubtedly many more will be wrong in the future.

    Still, you are right to question such stuff. You have been the one we care about. You will be in the most difficult position. Understand, I am your supporter. We all are, have been, and will be … there.

  4. Stephane G says:

    Thank you, Amanda. I did not know the word “e-prime” but your description reminded me of Van Vogt non-Aristotelianism and of an article by Korzybski (or about his work) I read years ago, in which, in the name of a “semantic hygiene” he objected to the use of the verb “to be” mainly because – or so he suggested – it allowed emotional subjectivity and reduced the subject to this Aristotelian “essence” that general semantics rejects. Because of my natural suspicion towards essentialism and my belief that the language we use has a direct influence on how we perceive things and, therefore, on how we shape our thinking, I found this idea very interesting at first. And yet, I can now think of at least two objections. First, it seems possible to reformulate a thought or a sentence to bypass the limitation, avoid the forbidden words (as I try to do it here and now) and, by doing so, to subvert the original intentions and goals behind e-prime. Secondly, in a homogenous system that contains its own rules and logic and apparently excludes subjectivity, like mathematics, the verb “to be” properly expresses identification, equivalence or (in)equality and I cannot think of a valid reason to avoid it.

    In conclusion, I believe e-prime appears more as a writing technique, or a way to question a certain lack of nuance in our speech and – yes – to better define the terms we use, or an interesting thought experiment, than a proven method to keep emotional subjectivity and fallacies at bay. And I consider any form of language limitation or deliberate impoverishment with caution.

    Anyway, trying to articulate these views in accordance with the rules of e-prime surely provided me with an entertaining opportunity to improve my English. 😉

  5. Tom Mininger says:

    So that’s (ouch) why I get so many “Passive voice – consider revising” warnings from the MS Word spell checker. Unlike misspelled words, the checker doesn’t make any suggestions to help a person who is (ouch) lazy… a person who doesn’t want to work on the right track.

    That’s (ouch) interesting how E-Prime exposes subjectivity. Now that you’ve demonstrated it, we’re (ouch) more aware of it whether we like it or not. I attempt to hide my passive words in contractions to no avail.

    Another good exercise in “Show, don’t tell” in addition to removing passive words is (ouch) replacing vague nouns and verbs with more specific ones. It is (ouch) left as an exercise to the reader to list a myriad of alternatives to “move”. “…and tingles ripple down her neck and arms.” is (ouch) more sensory than “…and tingles move down her neck and arms.”

    I hereby resolve to fix at least one of Word’s complaints in each week’s status report at work until my writing improves.

  6. Rob Hughes says:

    “On a purely quantitative level, the E-Prime version is more concise (120 vs. 114 words). The E-Prime version also corrects the structural problems of the normal English version, like passive voice: “the straw and stick houses were blown down.””

    Got caught up in this paragraph and now I’m not quite sure why!

    Firstly, I made a mistake in thinking that you had made a particular mistake by stating “the E-Prime version is more concise”, since 120 words is less concise than 114 words. But, the E-Prime version is indeed more concise, so your mistake (if you don’t mind and in my opinion) was a different one: putting the higher word count number first.

    Secondly, I counted each one and by my reckoning, the E-Prime version stands at 115 words and the other at 125.

    I wonder if you agree with both my points, though neither is that important.

    Nevertheless, your article is a very good one. So, thank you!

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