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E-Prime (the abbreviated form of English Prime)
is consists of English, with all forms of the verb "to be" abolished. Forms of the verb include "is, are, were, was, am, be, been", and their contractions. In the first instance, removing "to be" allows someone to communicate their subjective experience and removes judgement, allowing for a greater distinction between fact and opinion. For instance, the sentence "that goat is sexy" would not be allowed in E-Prime, but instead could be rendered as "I find that goat sexually attractive", which is far closer to factual accuracy in clarifying something as subjective opinion rather than as an objective fact. The intention in this case is to remove a statement of subjective experience away from the object and to the person who has that experience, and so avoid unproductive arguments of whether the goat is sexually attractive, when the argument should be about who does and does not find its horny, furry body sexually arousing.
While some more zealous nerds might actually propose purging the entire English language of the verb "to be" and universalizing the use of E-prime in everyday speech, most E-prime proponents do not have this intention. E-prime is not meant to replace standard English, but rather to serve as a tool for analyzing the way language is used and revealing clearer meanings therein. It instead forms a more critical thought experiment allowing you to realise cases where one is having the unproductive argument over the properties of a goat. One could compare it to a very specific but wide-reaching version of the rationalist taboo, designed for targeted use rather than to restrict or stifle people's use of language in general.
To be, or not to...
The verb "to be" has several distinct functions in English:
- identity; using the form noun-be-noun: This cat is my only pet
- predication; using the form noun-be-adjective: The cat is black
- auxiliary, using the form noun-be-verb: The cat is eating
- existence, using the form noun-be: There is a cat
- location, using the form noun be place: The cat is in the basket
E-Prime is designed to avoid the two of the main pitfalls associated with the usage of "to be," namely identity and predication. While the examples of the cat above appear harmless, consider more a more controversial edge cases of predication such as "that book is terrible", which would resort to an argument about whether it "is" or "is not" terrible, when it is really subjective opinion and not a property of the book that is under discussion (unless, of course, the book was written by Harun Yahya). Since the properties of a book are merely its physical characteristics and its information content, it does not exhuibit an inherent "terribleness" that it can be.
A general vagueness can also be associated with the concept of "to be" as an identity. Consider the question "who are you?" and how many possible answers you can generate for that — such as your name, what you do, what you're like — none of which truly answer what you are.
One of the reasons why using English prime can give one clarity of thought is that it reminds him/her that what he can only talk about sensibly is what registers in an instrument. Consider (1) "Electrons are particles.", and (2) "Electrons are waves."; rephrased in E-prime (1) "Under certain scientific experiments using so-and-so as the instrument, the electron registers as behaving like and/or appearing like a particle." and (2) "Under certain scientific experiments using so-and-so as the instrument, it registers as behaving like and appearing like a wave." In the first set of sentences, there exists a contradiction; under an Aristotelian orientation, the electron absolutely must either be a wave or a particle, and not both. Having this orientation, one forgets/ignores/is unaware of/etc. the fact that the observer is as much as important as the observed when describing any phenomenon. Unless one acknowledges this fact, s/he cannot (s/he can, but preferably should not) make any meaningful statement about the "world."
Use in "semantic hygiene"
Count Alfred Korzybski, founder of a philosophical or psychological school called General Semantics, wrote in his 1933 book Science and Sanity that all students should receive training in general semantics from grade school level onwards, as a kind of "semantic hygiene" to guard against logical error, emotional distortion, and "demonological thinking". Korzybski took the concept further than most and believed that the verb to be actually was a cause of neurosis and other mental illnesses, and recommended practices such as "indexing" (there is no "chairness", there is only chair 1, chair 2, chair 3.....) and "dating" (Consuela (2012) is not absolutely, completely, in all possible respects the same person as Consuela (2013).....) to keep the gremlins of essentialism at bay. Korzybskian General Semantics largely influenced Rational Emotional Behavioural psychotherapy , the original (pre-Aaron Beck) Cognitive-behavioural psychotherapeutic approach originated by Dr. Albert Ellis—rated second most influential 20th century psychologist—in the 1950s.
It was in service of these beliefs that D. David Bourland, Jr., a student of Korzybski, coined the term "E-Prime" when he demonstrated that it was possible to write and speak without using any form of "to be." Bourland felt that E-Prime provided a guide for such "semantic hygiene." Again, though, at no point do E-Prime advocates suggest that it should entirely replace English, they merely suggest it as a thought experiment to avoid these unproductive semantic arguments.
Statements such as "he is a criminal," which are typical of Standard English, all either implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view called "Aristotelian essentialism" or "naive realism." For example, by saying, "he is a criminal," the implication is that the person does, always did, and always will do some illegal act. By saying "he is a criminal" the person becomes associated with our own personal feelings and biases regarding the word "criminal." What we know about the person, becomes confused with what we know about the word "criminal." When we use the verb "to be" as an attribute, we are implying that things are permanent, always true, unchanging, appear the same to everyone, are final and can lead the observer to make hasty and premature conclusions, based on objective, absolute and abbreviated data.
In a sense, the usual approach of association like this seeks to compartmentalise our worldview. By switching the phrase to E-Prime and saying, "he seems like a criminal to me," the observation is reformatted according to signals received and interpreted by the observer at - and only at - the time of the observation. Compare it also with "the court judged him guilty of a crime", which is a more factual observation, or "he committed a crime" which is a more realistic and short re-casting of the original phrase. This swaps the accusation from being about an essential nature of a person being a criminal to pure fact; in this case that a person committed a crime or a court ruled them to be guilty. Those who make the argument "but then he is a criminal by definition", however, will have largely missed the point.
Note, however, that E-Prime itself is no sure ward against "Aristotelian essentialism" - it can help identify it, but a few linguistic shortcuts in English can re-introduce it without "to be". Consider the following examples:
In literary opinion:
- "That book is terrible" - (Standard English.)
- "That book seemed awful to me" - (E-Prime. Recast as statement of subjective experience.)
- "That book sucked" - (E-Prime, but not recast as statement of subjective experience.)
- "He is a criminal" - (Standard English, apparently essentialist.)
- "He seems like a criminal to me" (E-Prime. Recast as statement of subjective experience.)
- "A judge found him guilty of a crime" (E-Prime, but turns the status of criminality into a matter of fact.)
- "He commits crimes" (E-Prime, but not recast as statement of subjective experience.)
The last example is compatible with E-Prime, but makes the same associative predictions of someone's behaviour past, present and future - just as the original "he is a criminal" example does. While it does successfully take "criminality" from being a property of someone and recasts it as part of their behaviour, it does not avoid the overall fallacy of the original sentence.
Since opinions can not be defamation ("It's true I believe this"), E-Prime could theoretically help avoid lawsuits.
Criticism - beam me up, Whorf
Belief that using language that contains a copula verb somehow encourages 'essentialism', and that as such the languages themselves encourage bad habits of thinking, is a particularly muscular version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that suggests language influences how we think. In the strongest versions of this (which aren't very empirically backed up), it suggests linguistic categories create cognitive categories, which in turn control thought processes and leads to particular modes of thought. Under this hypothesis, the language you speak encourages the formation of certain ideas, while making other ideas unsupported by the language structure difficult or impossible to frame (see the intent behind Orwell's Newspeak).
The existence of E-Prime itself would appear to falsify this strong version. Humans are the masters of their language, not the other way around, and a language lacking the vocabulary or structure to express a thought that human minds can hold will borrow, invent, or kludge the necessary words - as demonstrated by the ability to recast phrases into E-Prime that still violate its intention. In short, not only is it possible to reframe any English sentence into E-Prime, but E-Prime can be written in a way that resists its stated goals, keeping all of the peremptory statements and opinions-as-fact of the forms that use to be.
Actual functions of the verb to be in English
The verb to be fulfils several grammatical functions in English:
It is a copula. It links a noun, pronoun, or adjective phrase with another, subject to predicate:
- You, sirrah, are a blackguard.
- A whale is not a fish.
- Be wise. Be insured.
This would appear to be the contested sense; it is a verb form that describes one thing as possessing described properties or given descriptions, and as such identifies those properties or descriptions as things that are. This would appear to be the objectionable 'essentialism'.
Note that English has plenty of other copulas besides to be:
- This seems strange.
- I become more goatlike every day.
- You smell funny. Like cod liver oil.
While these have limited functions, they serve the purpose of linking subject and predicate the same way that to be does. In formal English grammar, if smell in "You smell funny" were not a copula, the predicate must be an adverb: **You smell funnily.1 In most Indo-European languages that keep the distinction, both sides would be in the nominative case.
The verb to be serves other functions in English. It is an auxiliary verb. English, unlike many other languages, draws a distinction in grammatical aspect between She plays rochambeau and She is playing rochambeau. The first describes a habitual state: she knows how, and might be up for a game; the second is punctual: she plays now. This distinction preserves or revives a distinction once found in Indo-European between stative and eventive verbs; it resembles, but does not easily map onto, the Spanish distinction between ser and estar. In any case, it is far less obvious that the use of to be as an auxiliary verb involves any objectionable "essentialism".
English also uses the verb to be as a non-copula, declaring the existence of something: "There is a river". When it is used as a statement of existence, it does not even require a predicate: "I think, therefore I am". Part of the apparent impetus behind E-Prime seems to come from confounding these two senses. The English copula, of which to be is only one of several, is a linking verb, simply required by English grammar and syntax to combine a subject and predicate. The copula does not automatically attribute existence to its predicate; this declarative form does.
- Hamlet would be unintelligible.
- D. David Bourland, Jr. & Paul Dennithorne Johnston; "To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology"; International Society for General Semantics; 1991
- Robert Anton Wilson; Quantum Psychology; New Falcon Publications; 1990
- The Jerboa sect was unavailable for comment.
- As this clip from Anger Management demonstrates.
- Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, (Dover, 1956), pp. 281 et. seq.
- See the Wikipedia article on defamation.
- Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (Penguin, 2007; ISBN 978-0-14-311424-6), pp. 126 et. seq.
- See the Wikipedia article on copula.
- Charles, David. Appendix 2 Essence, Necessity, and the Copula. Oxford University Press, 2002.
- That's a subjunctive, in case you didn't notice.
- In linguistics, * is used to mark hypothetical forms, and ** used to mark ungrammatical or ill-formed words, or forms that might be predicted hypothetically but which do not in fact occur.
- See the Wikipedia article on auxiliary verb.
- See the Wikipedia article on grammatical aspect.
- See the Wikipedia article on stative verb.
- Or maybe not...