To be or not to be? E-Prime and the rules of language

E-Prime (short for English-Prime) is an experiment in the English language. It was founded as a research project in the mid-nineteen sixties by David Bourland, Jr. (1928–2000), who had studied under Alfred Korzybski (pictured) (1879–1950), the father of General Semantics. Bourland argued that we should eliminate all forms of the verb ‘to be’ from the English language. E-Prime does not allow conjugations of ‘to be’ (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being), archaic forms (e.g. art, wast, wert), or contractions (‘s, ‘m, ‘re)’ (E-Prime, Wikipedia 23/08/12). Eliminating the verbal form ‘to be’ from language is a significant step. It is not just like choosing to avoid certain topics, names and nouns – it places limits on what can be said. I can exist in E-Prime, and so can you, but neither of us can be anything.

Imagine a world without being. This is the world that we enter when we talk in E-Prime.

E-Prime was developed to reduce the occurrence of dogmatic thinking in conversations. Korzybski argued that the ambiguity of the form ‘to be’ creates unnecessary confusion in language. In everyday conversations, this confusion produces arguments and disagreements, and the withdrawal of parties into dogmatically-held positions. Bourland’s studies supported Korzybski’s claim that people who rely heavily on ‘to be’ (‘I am’, ‘you are’, and ‘we are’) tend to be more dogmatic in their thinking than people who don’t. Taking ‘to be’ out of the conversation defuses the possibility for voicing strong personal opinions and opens up a shared space for negotiation.

It is not surprising that E-Prime has become the tool of choice for negotiators. Rewilding activist Peter Bauer (aka Urban Scout) explains why he learned to think and write in E-Prime.

“To be” prevents us from experiencing a shared reality; something we need in order to communicate in a sane way. If someone sees something completely different than [sic] another, our language prevents us from acknowledging the other’s point of view by limiting our perception to fixed states. For example, if I say “Star Wars is a shitty movie,” and my friend says, “Star Wars is not a shitty movie!” We have no shared reality, for in our language, truth lies in only one of our statements and we can forever argue these truths until one of us writes a book and has more authority than the other. If on the other hand I say, “I hated Star Wars,” I state my opinion as observed through my own senses. I state a more accurate reality by not claiming that Star Wars “is” anything, as it could “be” anything to anyone (E-Prime, Wikipedia 23/08/12).

I am in two minds about E-Prime. I can see how it is useful to eliminate inflammatory verbal forms from conversations. At the same time, ‘I am’, ‘you are’, and ‘we are’ statements often concern things that we find deeply valuable and meaningful in life. Surely it is wrong to try to strip these things out of our thought and conversation altogether? I agree with Howard Thurman, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Mahatma Ghandi that to find your passion in life, you need to identify things that make you personally come alive, that enable you to be to the fullest extent – find them, ‘own’ them, and make them your dream.

Take ‘being’ out of some conversations, sure, but let’s not eliminate it from all of them. That would stifle the spark of life. I think it is fine to say ‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘we are’ so long as everyone is aware how these forms of speech can contribute to dogmatic, assertive thinking. If it’s dogmatic thinking we want to avoid, let’s focus on eliminating that, rather than to dogmatically assert the requirement for us to eliminate conjugations of ‘to be’ from our conversations.

Comments

  1. Accurate and very nicely done. I would like to see more research done looking at people using E-Prime, because I think it has some usefulness as a nudge towards better evaluating. Nonetheless, I tend to agree with you about E-Prime’s limitations, whatever usefulness it has.

  2. I totally agree. I’m re-writing my book and the new edition will not be in e-prime. There are just certain things that I feel I can’t say accurately – or portray emotionally – without using “to be”.

    • Nonetheless, a fascinating experiment, Peter! Good luck with the rewrite. If you feel the urge to dive into a philosophical reflection on the pros and cons of speaking with (or without) ‘to be’, let me know. I’m sure the readers of this blog would love to hear of your discoveries.

  3. You can fix “is” by making “I think ____ is” instead. As long as think is the verb, the is should fit eprime by my standards.

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