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.