E-Prime

E-Prime, by ctLow

A layman's personal perspective

E-Prime, the omission of the verb "to be" from English usage, alleges not only to clarify meaning in written and spoken English, but also actually to enhance critical thinking! So says its inventor, the semanticist D. David Bourland, Jr.

Can a "simple" grammatical construct really do both of these things? Probably not! Or, at least, probably only partly.

"Partly", however, does have some value. And while E-prime seems unlikely to garner a widespread or enthusiastic following, and almost certainly never to become the standard for even formal or "proper" English, it also shows no signs of disappearing completely. Its persistence may simply reflect the fun and enjoyment it brings to those who delight in intellectual stimulation, and who do crave more precision in the various forms of communication.

My own, humble, personal opinion about E-Prime remains, after much thought, that its proponents exaggerate its attributes. Consider what the standard "Introduction to E-Prime" often uses as its basic example:

"The ball is red."

The objection, that the "is" form of the verb "to be", in this sentence, connotes equality, and/or suggests that the inherent qualities of the "ball" of and the colour "red" exactly equate, seems, to my mind, so ridiculous as to hardly warrant further consideration. This use of "to be" would confuse absolutely no one.

Disadvantages

E-Prime renders use of the passive voice almost impossible, and while English experts contend that the passive tense possesses little precision and appears far too often, to eliminate it completely seems an over-reaction.

"To be" apparently has two meanings, in English, that of "identity" and that of "predication". The latter, as in the "red ball" example, above, leads us less astray than the former, which would say "The ball is a toy". It depends whether "is" refers then to an adjective or a noun. Some nittier pickers subdivide "to be" much more than this, but this test the limits of my interest, for the moment.

Now, we ask the question, how do we discuss the ball's colour? To say "The ball possesses a red colour" would leave even the most academic semanticist cold. E-Prime advocates circumvent this by saying things like "Look at the red ball," or "The ball seems red." But even they admit that substituting "to seem" ("to appear", "to continue", "to exist", even, and many others) for "to be", skirts around the dilemma. It does not clarify thought, nor enhance meaning. It only follows the "Do not use to be" rule, and blind rule-following does not seem to incorporate the spirit of E-Prime in any way at all!

E-Prime sounds stilted, when used by the beginner. An expert's writing, however, has complete transparency: one could read an entire work, and not even notice that "to be" appeared nowhere. Speaking in E-Prime presents much more difficulty, along the lines of simultaneous translation, and few people have really learned the "language" well enough for fluency. They do exist, however, and I consider myself fortunate to have heard one interviewed (probably Dr. Kellogg [below]) on the radio, some years ago. One would not have noticed the absence of "to be", except that E-Prime comprised the actual topic of discussion.

E-prime purists eschew "to be" even as a combining form, as in "I was going". To me, this goes too far. We impute no "being" here - we English-speakers simply happen to construct one of our past tenses this way, using "to be". Translated into other languages, such as French, with which I have the most familiarity, it becomes "j'allais" - no "to be" in there!

Advantages

Eliminating the passive voice, as mentioned above, generally does raise the level of critical thought and of crispness of meaning. Consider:

"The ball was dropped."

We often hear this type of construction used to avoid responsibility. It makes it sound as if the ball dropped all by itself, whereas more likely someone made a mistake, and let the ball go when he or she should not have! And, although we can still say "The ball fell" in E-Prime, it nonetheless probably does make us a bit more honest, for example, to say "I didn't get ready in time", vs. "I wasn't ready in time". You may disagree, because it does get a little subtle, and whether we value E-Prime enough to justify the effort remains in question!

What now?

Apparently, studies of limited but various fragments of formal English writing illustrate that "to be" finds its way into somewhere between 25% and 50% of sentences. It seems unlikely that it will just go away.

But, when you find that you don't quite seem able to convey your meaning, or that your grammar checker keeps telling you to avoid the passive voice, consider using E-Prime. It does, to some degree, clarify our thought and meaning, and also just provides useful mental exercise, breaking adhesions to convention, and thus stimulating creativity.

ctLow

A layman's impersonal perspective

E-Prime is the omission of the verb "to be" from English usage, and is alleged not only to clarify meaning in written and spoken English, but also actually to enhance critical thinking! This is according to its inventor, the semanticist D. David Bourland, Jr.

Can a "simple" grammatical construct really be that good? No, it probably is not! Or, at least, probably only partly.

"Partly", however, is of some value. And while E-prime is unlikely to garner a widespread or enthusiastic following, and almost certainly never to be the way in which even formal or "proper" English is used, it also is showing no signs of disappearing completely. Its persistence may simply be because it is fun! It's an intellectual stimulant, and is great for those who do crave more precision in the various forms of communication.

My own, humble, personal opinion about E-Prime is, after much thought, that its attributes are exaggerated. Here is the standard "Introduction to E-Prime" basic example:

"The ball is red."

The objection is that the verb "to be", in this sentence, connotes equality, and/or suggests that the inherent qualities of the "ball" of and the colour "red" are exactly the same thing, and is, to my mind, so ridiculous as to hardly warrant further consideration. Absolutely no one would be confused by this use of "to be".

Disadvantages

In E-Prime, the passive voice is almost impossible, and while English experts contend that the passive tense is imprecise and over-used, eliminating it completely is an over-reaction.

"To be" apparently has two meanings, in English, that of "identity" and that of "predication". The latter, as in the "red ball" example, above, is less serious than the former, which would be "The ball is a toy". It depends whether the object is an adjective or a noun. Some nittier pickers subdivide "to be" much more than this, but this is my limit of interest in this, for the moment.

The question, then, is how do we discuss the ball's colour? To say "The ball possesses a red colour" is too cold for even the most academic semanticist. E-Prime advocates get around this by saying things like "Look at the red ball," or "The ball seems red." But even they admit that substituting "to seem" ("to appear", "to continue", "to exist", even, and many others) for "to be", is only a crude work-around. It is not clearer, nor does it enhance meaning. All it does is follow the "Do not use to be" rule, and blind rule-following does not seem to incorporate the spirit of E-Prime in any way at all!

E-Prime is stilted-sounding, when used by the beginner. An expert's writing, however, is completely transparent: one could read an entire work, and not even notice that "to be" was nowhere. Speaking in E-Prime is much more difficult, being very much like simultaneous translation, and few people are really fluent enough to pull it off. They are some, however, and I was fortunate to hear one interviewed (probably Dr. Kellogg [below]) on the radio, some years ago. One would not have known that "to be" was absent, were it not that E-Prime was the actual topic of discussion.

E-prime purists eschew "to be" even as a combining form, as in "I was going". To me, this is going too far. There is no imputation of "being" here - it's just that one of our English past tenses is constructed this way, and happens to use "to be". Translated into other languages, such as French, with which I am most familiar, it is "j'allais" - there is no "to be" in there!

Advantages

Eliminating the passive voice, as mentioned above, generally does raise the level of critical thought and of crispness of meaning. Consider:

"The ball was dropped."

This type of construction is often used to avoid responsibility. It makes it sound as if the ball dropped all by itself, whereas someone more likely made a mistake, and let the ball go when he or she should not have! And, although we can still say "The ball fell" in E-Prime, it nonetheless probably is a bit more honest, for example, to say "I didn't get ready in time", vs. "I wasn't ready in time". You may disagree, because it is a little subtle, and whether there is enough value to justify E-Prime is still in question!

What now?

Apparently, studies of limited but various fragments of formal English writing illustrate that "to be" is in something like 25% to 50% of sentences. It's unlikely that it will just go away.

But, when you find that you aren't quite able to convey your meaning, or that your grammar checker keeps telling you to avoid the passive voice, consider using E-Prime. It is, to some degree, a clarifier of our thought and meaning, and is also just a useful mental exercise, which breaks adhesions to convention and thus is a creative stimulant.

ctLow

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Links

I have found several good E-prime references on the Internet:

Many thanks to the several who have found some of these references for me.

If you come across anything else, kindly draw it to my attention! Thank you.

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One last thing

"Is this your son?" - deceptively difficult to translate into E-Prime

I have searched and pondered one simple question which perhaps you can help me with. (It arose at the dinner table with my family, during a vigorous discussion about E-Prime! You know how those talks go!)

Let's say that you've gone to the market and you meet a woman you know with a child you don't know. How can you ask her, "Is this your son?" in E-Prime without sounding stilted and with complete transparency (i.e. so that the woman would never even notice the grammatical construct)?

To say, "What relation does this young man bear to you?" goes badly beyond even formal speech. Saying, "Would you introduce me to this young man?" uses good E-Prime, but avoids the very direct question which I want to know: does the young fellow bear a filial relationship to the woman. Even, "Have you brought your son with you?" introduces minor subsidiary concepts ("bringing") which do not concern me. "Do I have the pleasure of meeting your son?" - nah, come on now. Some people abbreviate the question to simply: "Your son?" - which, however, leaves "to be" in there by implication.

I suspect I will find an easy solution, but apparently others besides myself have a mental block about it, and we would all very much appreciate your assistance - thanks!

2001-09-14: I thought of these as I awoke this morning (and if you too have nothing better to think about as you rouse in the morning - welcome to the club!).

  1. "Introduce me to your companion."
  2. "Do I have the pleasure of meeting your son?" (It doesn't seem as bad to me as it did just above!)
  3. "Who do you have with you?"

I think that any of these serves the purpose fairly well - neither transliterating perfectly from the non-E-Prime version, but both, in some ways, expressing the question, in fact, better - as E-Prime should!

2002-01-06: Correspondent MC has suggested "…and who have we here?" So simple, so elegant - thank you.

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NB: I have written a non-semantic essay in E-Prime (99%...). If photography interests you, check out Photography Basics.

E-Prime, © 1997-2016 ctLow
-originally posted 1997-12-04
-updated 2016-05-15