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. [Read more…]