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Working with E-Prime: Some Practical Notes
January 15, 2001

E. W. Kellogg III and D. David Bourland, Jr., 1990. All rights reserved. (Originally published in Etc., Vol. 47, No. 4, 376-92, 1990-91. Reprinted in To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, published by the International Society for General Semantics in 1991.)

"To achieve adjustment and sanity and the conditions that follow from them, we must study the structural characteristics of this world first and, then only, build languages of similar structure, instead of habitually ascribing to the world the primitive structure of our language."

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity.

LISTEN to almost any news report, and you'll find that we live in a world on the brink of political, social, and environmental crises. These man-made problems do not originate "outside" of us, but from the beginning have stemmed from the short-sightedness of human beings going about their daily tasks using two-valued true-or-false Aristotelian logic; a logic that has proven itself woefully inadequate to solving the complex problems of the twentieth century. The threats of nuclear war, overpopulation, and ecological disaster hang over our heads, and if we wish to survive as a species the solutions to these problems must also originate from us.

The science of ecology teaches us that we need to see through non-Aristotelian eyes, and deal with the world as an interdependent whole of interconnecting parts. And yet, the English language itself betrays us in this task, as its very structure trains us to use the old simplistic viewpoint we need so desperately to outgrow. Unless we as human beings learn to think and communicate differently and more effectively about our problems, we may soon find ourselves released from the necessity of having to think at all. The authors see E-Prime (English without the verb "to be") as a practical starting point in the development of such a non-Aristotelian language, and hope that our readers will find the information provided here useful should they choose to make E-Prime an integral part of their own lives.

Since the publication of Bourland's article, A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime, in 1965 (1), numerous articles, books, and even dissertations (see references 2-17), have appeared testifying to the effectiveness of E-Prime as a discipline that encourages, even forces, the user to write, speak and think more clearly and accurately. On the surface, the term E-Prime refers to an English language derivative that eliminates use of the verb "to be" in any form (such as "am", "is", "was", "are", "were", "be", and "been"). E-Prime allows users to minimize many "false to facts" linguistic patterns inherent in ordinary English, and to often move beyond a two-valued Aristotelian orientation which views the world through overly simplistic terms such as "true-or false", "black-or-white", "all-or-none", "right-or-wrong".

E-Prime automatically eliminates the "is-dependent", over-defining of situations in which we confuse one aspect, or point of view, of an experience with a much more complex totality (see 7 and 12 for more details). This over-defining occurs chiefly in sentences using the "is of identity" (e.g. "John is a scientist") and the "is of predication" (e.g. "The leaf is green"), two of the main stumbling blocks to a non-Aristotelian approach. E-Prime can also enhance creativity in problem solving, by transforming premature judgment statements such as "There is no solution to this problem" into more strictly accurate versions such as "I don't see how to solve this problem (yet)".

Although many people have found the idea of E-Prime intriguing, not many have attempted to put it into practice. Of those who have, some have mastered writing in E-Prime, and a few have mastered speaking or thinking in it. Whatever the virtues of E-Prime as a linguistic discipline, experience has shown that students can markedly benefit from the practical advice of their predecessors. In this paper, the authors will answer the major questions about the theory and practice of E-Prime that they have heard over the years, and provide useful guidelines that will smooth the path for those determined to make the discipline of E Prime their own.

You call E-Prime a "linguistic discipline." A linguistic discipline for what?

Within practical limits, users of E-Prime try to say exactly what they mean. When I (E.K.) say "almost always" I mean that and not "always". In my writing I almost always delete or modify such absolutisms, in speaking I try to do so, but sometimes don't succeed. I try to qualify what I say to make it more accurate, avoiding the absolutistic point-of-view by using qualifiers, like "in my experience", "as I see it". "to me", etc.

As a discipline, E-Prime, like general semantics (18), works to achieve a useful congruency between the verbal maps we make of experience, and the actual territory of experience itself. Although in the simplest sense E-Prime need only involve giving up any use of the verb "to be", in a practical sense it may also include other non-Aristotelian linguistic devices (such as dating and indexing (18), the avoidance of absolutisms (19), etc.) Thus, E-Primek denotes an E-Prime that also makes use of the general semantic formulations Korzybski suggested (18). My (E.K.) own preferred form of E-Prime (E-Primep ), aims at a phenomenologically ideal language(20) that represents and communicates the territory of my experience both to myself and others as clearly and accurately as possible.

How does E-Prime work?

Although one could describe E-Prime simply as English without the verb "to be", such a definition misses the profound transformation in personal orientation in the user that results from such a change. In essence, E-Prime consists of a more descriptive and extensionally oriented derivative of English, that automatically tends to bring the user back to the level of first person experience. In his book, Language, Thought and Reality (21), Benjamin Lee Whorf gives numerous examples of languages and cultures that support his "principle of linguistic relativity". This principle states that the structure of the language we use influences the way we perceive "reality", as well as how we behave with respect to that perceived reality.

For example, if you saw a man, reeking of whisky, stagger down the street and then collapse, you might think (in ordinary English) "He is drunk". In E-Prime you would think instead "He acts drunk", or "He looks drunk". After all, you might have encountered an actor (practicing the part of a drunken man), a man who had spilled alcohol on himself undergoing a seizure of some kind, etc. Instead of simply walking by, you might instead look a little more carefully and end up sending for an ambulance.

Although E-Prime usually reduces hidden assumptions, it does not exclude them. For example, you may have seen a woman, or a robot, or an alien, etc., that looked like a man and acted drunk. E-Prime fosters a worldview in which the user perceives situations as changeable rather than static, and in which verbal formulations derived from experience indicate possibilities rather than certainties.

Thus, removing the verb "to be" from English results in a language of a more phenomenological character (20), in that this change can automatically reduce the number of assumptions in even simple sentences. Statements made in E-Prime almost always mirror first person experience more adequately than the "is" statements they replace. E-Prime also greatly encourages one to use the active voice ("I did it", "Smith did it") rather than the often misleading, information poor, and even psychologically crippling (4) passive voice ("it was done"). 

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