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English Prime as an Instructional Tool in Writing Classes
John C. Herbert (Japan)
Accomplished teachers of English composition can offer a variety of ways
to guide students through the writing process, ranging from mind maps
to peer critiques with numerous pre-writing, writing, and post-writing
activities in between. For students, one of the more challenging and useful
steps in the revision stage of the writing process surfaces in the removal
of prosaic sentence formations that include clichés, simple narration,
and vague expressions. Despite their efforts to cleanse students' essays
of ambiguous and trite language, many students and teachers overlook the
lack of originality and clarity inherent in an over-reliance on the verb
to be. An introduction to English Prime, commonly referred to as E-Prime,
can remedy this oversight and can compel ESL and EFL students to improve
their language learning within the process of writing.
What does E-Prime entail?
The conceptualization of E-Prime first came about within the field of
general semantics as a means of promoting the removal of Aristotelian
logic from the English language (see Bourland and Johnston 1991; Bourland
and Johnston 1997; Johnston, Bourland and Klein 1994). Advocates of E-Prime
claim that Aristotelian logic, which induces English speakers and writers
to report beliefs as true or false, or black-or-white, through
the use of the verb to be, creates false absolutes (Kellogg and
Bourland 1990). E-Prime eliminates the use of the verb to be from both
written and spoken forms of English and, in its most complete form, requires
the writer or speaker to make a reference to the person or entity that
claims credibility in a given statement. For example, in reference to
someone labeled by the police as a criminal, the direct accusation
He is a criminal, when translated into E-Prime, might appear
more subtly restated as, According to the police, he exhibits criminal
behavior. Some people would probably agree with the former statement;
however, everyone else, including the criminal himself, would
agree with the latter. As such, E-Prime offers a more accurate representation
In particular, E-Prime aims to rid the English language of the identity
use (noun phrase + be + noun phrase) and the predicate use (noun phrase
+ be + adjective phrase) of the verb to be (Scorpio 2003). Strict
E-Prime guidelines call for the deletion of all forms of the verb to
be, including the very common existential, passive, and progressive
forms, as well as idiomatic and other fixed forms, such as to be
into (something) and to be supposed to. By removing
all forms of the verb to be from their writing, students can refine
their writing to exhibit greater achievement and clearer, more elaborate
descriptions of reality. In turn, preventing writing students from using
the verb to be forces them to seek new vocabulary. E-Prime also
activates the use of known vocabulary that students might otherwise leave
dormant, or perhaps even forget altogether, under the shadow of the verb
Applications of E-Prime in writing classrooms
The origins of E-Prime described above may seem deeply philosophical
to most English speakers; and, at first, the application of E-Prime guidelines
to writing assignments may appear somewhat questionable to ESL and EFL
composition teachers. After all, the verb to be does play a significant
role in sentence construction as perhaps one of the most frequently used
verbs in the English language across most registers. However, under closer
scrutiny, the benefits that E-Prime has to offer writing students refute
any possible skepticism or objection that a teacher might have over E-Primes
value as an instructional tool.
Furthermore, writing teachers can find a variety of ways to incorporate
E-Prime guidelines in their writing assignments from beginning-level sentence
writing to advanced-level essay writing. Sentence-level translation exercises,
paraphrasing tasks, and revision activities for entire essays make up
some of the more practical techniques teachers can use to show students
the rewards of E-Prime. By translating standard English into E-Prime,
even low-intermediate level students can acquire new vocabulary and grammatical
structures. Likewise, when using E-Prime to paraphrase readings that contain
the verb to be, intermediate and higher level students might find ways
to state comments more clearly, as well as more fairly. In addition, teachers
may consider asking for English Double Prime, which requires
avoiding the verbs to be and to have, in these paraphrasing activities.
The Web-based article Make Your Paraphrasing Plagiarism Proof with
a Coat of E-Prime (Maas 2003) provides noteworthy and photocopiable
materials for introducing students to E-Prime through paraphrasing. Finally,
regarding essay revisions, teachers may ask their high intermediate and
advanced students to either make their revisions during the writing stage
or as sentence-by-sentence translations in the post-writing stage.
The next section of this article demonstrates only one of the many ways
an English composition teacher might incorporate E-Prime guidelines into
a descriptive essay assignment. In this particular assignment, the students
should not receive encouragement to qualify each descriptive statement
with a point-of-view phrase, such as In my mind... or In
my opinion.... In this way, students can avoid redundancy and maintain
their stance on how they want their readers to perceive descriptions without
hedging. Therefore, the final products of the students writings
should display basic E-Prime, English without the verb to be, and should
not reflect what semanticists refer to as practical or pure
E-Prime, which includes point-of-view expressions (Kellogg and Bourland
1990; Scorpio 2003).
Descriptive writing assignment requiring E-Prime
The following requirements for writing a descriptive essay suit any English
composition students who have achieved at least a level of English proficiency
necessary for writing narration. A former student, Yuko Hinoki, who granted
permission to include her essay as an appendix
to this article, followed the proposed guidelines closely with a few minor
exceptions. The assignment called for a description of a place that the
student writer knew well. The main focus of Yukos essay centers
on her room during a typical day. Aside from a couple of references to
changes in time, Yukos final draft models excellent adherence to
the following writing criteria:
- Do not tell a story about a special place with narration, but show
the place through description.
- Do not use first person (I, we) or second person (you).
- Do not use any forms of the verb to be, including its auxiliary
forms with progressive tenses and passive sentences.
- Describe one place at a single point in time, using as many active
simple present tense verbs as possible.
- Focus on what you experience through the five senses and not on your
actions in the place.
See the article Seven and Ninth Grade Writing Exercises: Candy, Biographies
and E-Prime (Miller 1999) for other criteria for descriptive writing.
When student writers need to avoid narration, they have a tendency to
rely heavily on the passive voice and other grammatical forms that include
the verb to be. However, the guidelines above encourage writers
to deviate from simplistic narration and the verb to be in a manner
that enhances their focus on description. Guideline 5, in particular,
moves the students toward using descriptive verbs, like smell,
taste, feel, sound, look, and their equivalents
that can replace to be and sometimes even inspires students to
use similes. For example, students could change The room is musty
to The room smells musty or perhaps, The room reeks
like a musty athletic locker.
In order for intermediate-level English students to achieve the goals
of a descriptive writing assignment written in E-Prime, teachers may want
to consider having their students complete the following tasks:
- Review action verbs that could replace the verb to be and use
example sentences with revisions that exclude it.
- Work in pairs or groups to remove the verb to be plus first
and second person pronouns from rough drafts.
Students can write their most challenging revisions on the board, and
the teacher can turn those revisions into a classroom review.
Writing students may also want to consult the sample E-Prime translations
and revisions in Table
1. However, teachers and students should know that other writing assignments,
which employ different genres, may call for some adaptation of the examples
presented. The E-Prime Tutorial Web site (Scorpio 2003) provides an excellent
source of example sentences and also makes available a list of alternative
action verbs that provide creative substitutions for the verb to be.
In some instances, Table 1 recommends alterations rather than direct
translations because translating directly would result in awkward or seemingly
incomplete statements of description. For example, the alteration of the
first sample sentence transforms the object hideout, into
a definition that provides a slightly more detailed description. This
revision presents a more appropriate transformation than an indecisive
expression like My room seems like a hideout. Likewise, a
student could substitute My stereo is a Sony with Sony
made my stereo but a focus on Sony as a manufacturer detracts from
the description of the stereo itself. Therefore, My Sony stereo
(does something) constitutes a better transformation.
Similarly, sentences with the predicate form of the verb to be
seem to translate easily and directly into E-Prime because they often
only involve changing the copula, as seen in My bed feels comfortable.
Sometimes, translating the predicate form also warrants changing the predicative
adjective to an adverb as seen in The music plays loudly.
Nonetheless, as with the identity uses above, the unwanted hedging indicated
by the use of copula such as seems and appears
should lead to further alteration and elaboration. Translations of the
predicate use of the verb to be from standard English into E-Prime
do not always motivate students to elaborate much. In such cases, both
standard English versions and the E-Prime translations beg for the addition
of similes and other descriptive devices. However, the E-Prime translations
do promote the use of a wider range of vocabulary that reduce the redundancy
of the overused verb to be.
With respect to existential and passive forms of the verb to be,
students can easily translate many of the standard English examples into
simple, sometimes narrative, E-Prime sentences with the first person pronoun
I as in I have a chair
, I threw my dirty
, or I sprayed the curtains
since the assignment criteria forbid the use of narration and first person
pronouns, students often obligingly turn to the creative use of personification
found in phrases like A chair sits, Clothes clutter,
and Smell clings. At this point, a thesaurus comes in very
handy for helping students to decide whether or not words like sit,
clutter, and cling truly capture the image they want their
descriptions to portray. Alternately, students can transform other passive
sentences, preferably those that do not hide a first person pronoun, to
match an E-Prime format with the simple changes used to switch any passive
sentence to an active one.
On the surface, when progressive forms undergo transformation into E-Prime,
the necessary changes seem as easy as The stereo is playing
equals The stereo plays and It is raining equals
It rains. On the contrary, these simple present tense verb
constructions beg for elaboration as seen in The stereo plays softly.
Out of context, the use of the simple present tense may seem strange,
but it does serve its purpose for describing places and objects at a single
moment in time, and may, in a descriptive writing, invite the use of similes
as seen in Rain pours like a waterfall.
The most complex alterations occasionally show up in the rearranging
of sentences that contain idiomatic or fixed expressions with the verb
to be. With the exclusion of first person pronouns and to be,
these sentences sometimes demand near complete revisions and can easily
lose their originally intended meanings or functions if a writer does
not use caution. For example, with the first person pronoun, a student
could change the idiomatic phrase I am into classical music
to I love classical music. However, without the first person
pronoun, the student must ask, Why do I love classical music?
The answer to this question should provide an appropriate transformation,
as does Classical music pleases me, but not necessarily the
most accurate translation because the word pleases may not carry
exactly the same meaning the student wants to convey with the idiom to
be into. The student might find the sentence better off with a completely
different verb, for example, relaxes, excites,
or entertains. Likewise, in the last example in Table 1, the
fixed phrase to be supposed to presents the verb to be
in its passive form. Therefore, the phrase can serve the function of concealing
the supposers identity. In contrast, a direct E-Prime translation
would call for clarification of who expects the student to clean his or
her room. In order to maintain the function of the original meaning, the
student may feel more comfortable simply stating the fact that the room
needs cleaning, rather than writing something like, My mom told
me to clean my room.
In summary, E-Prime shows great potential for transforming standard English
sentences into more creative and clearer statements of description. In
addition, E-Prime encourages frequent perusal of a thesaurus and experimentation
with personification and similes. Furthermore, the process of converting
standard English to E-Prime does not allow students to adhere to only
familiar language patterns that they can easily compose the morning of
the due date. This enhancement of the writing process teaches the students
to teach themselves and to spend their essay writing time more reflectively
When applying the aforementioned ideas to any writing assignment, teachers
must make sure their students know that the proposed set of guidelines
represents only one means to an end and does not present an end in itself.
Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment
would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent
writing. However, introducing E-Prime restrictions for at least one assignment
forces students to spend more time with their essays, to think critically
about acceptable grammar and vocabulary, and to search for new, or nearly
If you fear that essays without to be would sound too awkward
to find a place in your writing classes, please notice that, excluding
sample quotes, this article and the attached student essay both conform
to the basic E-Prime guidelines. Do they read strangely to you?
Bourland, D. and P. Johnston. eds. 1991. To be or not be: An E-Prime
anthology. Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics.
Bourland, D. and P. Johnston. Eds. 1997. E-Prime III!: A third anthology.
Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics.
Johnston, P., D. Bourland, and J. Klein. Eds. 1994. More E-Prime:
To be or not II. Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics.
Kellogg, E., and D. Bourland. 1990. Working with E-Prime: Some practical
notes. http://www.generalsemantics.org/Education/WEPrime.htm. Originally
published in 1990 in Etc.: A review of general semantics, 47, 4,
pp. 376392 and reprinted in Bourland and Johnston 1991. Retrieved
on March 19, 2003, from the World Wide Web. [Web page no longer available;
instead. — Forum staff, March 5, 2004]
Maas, D. 2003. Make your paraphrasing plagiarism proof with a coat
of E-Prime. http://www.generalsemantics.org/Articles/E-prime_Plagiarism_Proof.htm.
Retrieved on March 19, 2003, from the World Wide Web. [Web page no longer
available — Forum staff, March 5, 2004]
Miller, S. 1999. Seven and ninth grade writing exercises: Candy, biographies,
Originally published in 1999 in Etc.: A review of general semantics,
56, 1. [Web page no longer available — Forum staff, March
Scorpio, D. 2003. E-Prime tutorial. http://www.angelfire.com/nd/danscorpio/ep2.html.
Retrieved on March 19, 2003, from the World Wide Web.
John C. Herbert currently teaches English at Kansai University
in Osaka, Japan.
Table 1: E-Prime Translations and Revisions for
a Descriptive Essay
Use of the verb to be
Example sentences in Standard English
Example translations and revisions in English Prime
My room is my hideout.
My room hides me from the outside world.
The stereo is a Sony.
My Sony stereo entertains my guests.
My bed is comfortable.
My bed feels comfortable.
The music is loud.
The music plays loudly.
There is a chair in the corner.
A chair sits in the corner.
Dirty clothes are all over the floor and furniture.
Dirty clothes clutter the floor and furniture.
The curtains have been sprayed with perfume.
The smell of perfume clings to the curtains.
Post cards are sent to me every month by my friends.
My friends send post cards to me every month.
The stereo is playing.
The stereo plays softly.
It is raining.
Rain pours like a waterfall.
Idiomatic or Fixed
I am into classical music.
Classical music pleases me.
I am supposed to clean my room.
My room needs cleaning.
Appendix: My Room by Yuko Hinoki
Recently new houses mushroom in my town. My condominium has stood here
near the sea since 1991. My family has lived in this home, which has 4
rooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen, for 10 years. Our house
seems large. Although my room has only six-tatami, it gives me much comfort
through sight, smell, touch, and sound.
From the entrance of my room, on the right, stands a desk. My grandparents
gave me this desk 13 years ago. So the desk sometimes reminds me of my
grandparents. My most important dictionaries and textbooks rest inside
a bookshelf on the desk. Therefore, my desk provides a convenience place
The window lights up my desk from the opposite side of the room. The
rising sun sneaks through the window to wake me up every morning. Light
fills my room until the sun sets in the west.
Near the window, the perfumed curtains emit the smell of peaches. This
scent makes me relax.
My soft bed and warm linens tempt me to sleep. So my mattress and quilt
always put me to sleep successfully.
Finally, my condominium also stands by the railroad so the noise of the
train enters every room of my home. Moreover, my room has very thin walls.
Therefore, music from the stereo usually fills not only the living room
but my room as well. These sounds make me feel at home because of their
common and familiar tones.
Consequently, the various articles in my room make me pleased. My family
lives a happy life by virtue of these articles. As such, my room plays
an integral role in my life!
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