Working with E-Prime: Some Practical Notes
January 15, 2001
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.)
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
Science and Sanity.
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.
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",
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
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
E-Prime a "linguistic discipline." A linguistic
discipline for what?
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.
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.
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.
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").