E-Prime, short for English-Prime, is a modified English syntax and vocabulary lacking all forms of the verb to be: be, is, am, are, was, were, been and being, and also their contractions. Sentences composed in E-Prime seldom contain the passive voice, which in turn may force the writer or speaker to think differently. By eliminating most uses of the passive voice, E-Prime compels the writer to explicitly acknowledge the agent of a sentence, possibly making the written text easier to read and understand.
Some regard E-Prime as a variant of the English language, while others consider it a mental discipline to filter their own speech and translate the speech of others. For example, the sentence "the movie was good" can become "I liked the movie" using the rules of E-Prime, which communicates the subjective nature of the speaker's experience rather than directly imparting a quality to the movie. Using E-Prime makes it harder for a writer or reader to confuse statements of opinion with statements of fact. According the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs, "Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing.
He collected and published three volumes of essays in support of his innovation. The first bore the title: To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology : 1991, San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics, edited by D. David Bourland, Jr. and Paul Dennithorne Johnston. For the second, More E-Prime: To Be or Not II: 1994, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics, he added a third editor, Jeremy Klein.
Bourland and Johnston edited a third book E-Prime III: a third anthology: 1997, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.
Korzybski (1879-1950) had decided that two forms of the verb 'to be'—the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of predication—had structural problems. For example, the sentence "The coat is red" has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain.
Korzybski pointed out the circularity of many dictionary definitions, and suggested adoption of the convention, then recently introduced among mathematicians, of acknowledging some minimal ensemble of terms as necessarily 'undefined'; he chose 'structure', 'order', and 'relation'. He wrote of those that they do not lend themselves to explication in words, but only by exhibiting how to use them in sentences.
Korzybski advocated raising one's awareness of structural issues generally through training in general semantics.
Bourland sees specifically the "identity" and "predication" functions as pernicious, but advocates eliminating all forms for the sake of simplicity. In the case of the "existence" form (and less idiomatically, the "location" form), one can simply substitute the verb "exists". Other copula in English include taste, feel, smell, sound, grow, remain, stay, and turn, among others, which a writer of E-prime might use instead of to be.
Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility for misunderstanding and for conflict. Note that some languages already treat equivalents of the verb "to be" very differently without giving any obvious advantages to their speakers. For instance, Arabic, like Russian, already lacks a verb form of "to be" in the present tense. If one wanted to assert, in Arabic, that an apple looks red, one would not literally say "the apple is red", but "the apple red". In other words, speakers can communicate the verb form of "to be", with its semantic advantages and disadvantages, even without the existence of the word itself. Thus they do not resolve the ambiguities that E-Prime seeks to alleviate without an additional rule, such as that all sentences must contain a verb. Similarly, the Ainu language consistently does not distinguish between "be" and "become"; thus ne means both "be" and "become", and pirka means "good", "be good", and "become good" equally. Many languages—for instance Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew—already distinguish "existence"/"location" from "identity"/"predication".
E-Prime and Charles Kay Ogden's Basic English lack compatibility because Basic English has a closed set of verbs, excluding verbs such as "become", "remain", and "equal" that E-Prime uses to describe precise states of being. Changes such as those proposed for E-Prime also might eliminate enough ways to express aspect in African American Vernacular English to prove unworkable if applied indiscriminately to such language.
Alfred Korzybski has criticized the use of the verb "to be", and has said that "any proposition containing the word 'is' [or its other conjugations 'are,' be' etc] creates a linguistic structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies". However, he also justified the expression he coined "the map is not the territory" by saying that "the denial of identification (as in 'is not') has opposite neuro-linguistic effects on the brain from the assertion of identity (as in 'is')." Noam Chomsky, widely regarded as the father of modern linguistics, has commented on Korzybski's "insight":
Sometimes what we say can be misleading, sometimes not, depending on whether we are careful. If there's anything else [in Korzybski's work], I don't see it. That was the conclusion of my undergrad papers 60 years ago. Reading Korzybski extensively, I couldn't find anything that was not either trivial or false. As for neuro-linguistic effects on the brain, nothing was known when he wrote and very little of that is relevant now.
To be falls in the set of irregular verbs in English; some individuals, especially those who have learned English as a second language, may have difficulty recognizing all its forms. In addition, speakers of colloquial English frequently contract to be after pronouns or before the word not. E-Prime would prohibit the following words as forms of to be:
E-prime does not prohibit the following words, because they do not derive from forms of to be. Some of these serve similar grammatical functions (see auxiliary verbs).
These are some short examples to illustrate some of the ways that standard English writing can be modified to use E-Prime.
| To be or not to be,|
That is the question.
| To exist or not to exist,|
That I must decide.
| Roses are red;|
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.
| Roses look red;|
Violets look blue.
Honey tastes sweet,
As sweet as you.
|Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'|| Alice began to tire of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister read, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what use does a book have,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?' |
In the original verse (Roses are red/Violets are blue/Honey is sweet/And so are you) the speaker expresses a belief in absolutes: "just as it is true that roses are red and violets are blue, it is true that you are as sweet as honey". But E-Prime seeks to avoid this type of thinking and writing.
Roses look red;
Violets look blue.
Honey seems sweet,
And so do you.
The following example sacrifices the metaphor implied in line 4 of the original ("You are honey-sweet") to preserve one literal meaning of line 3, namely that honey tastes sweet, and therefore replaces line 4 with simile meaning something close to the original: "honey tastes sweet, and something of your nature makes you as sweet as that."
Roses look red;
Violets look blue.
Honey tastes sweet,
As sweet as you.
(This example assumes the speaker does not mean the addressee of the poem "tastes sweet," but does mean something like "I find you sweet as honey," and attempts to preserve the meter and rhyme of the original while still avoiding any form of the verb "to be.")
In an attempt to subtract the assumption of absolutes ("what is") in the original, and to illustrate thought and perspective more in the spirit of E-Prime, the following translation attempts to state meaning directly from a hypothetical speaker's personal feelings toward the addressee, and express that meaning through the filter of that speaker's perceptions of the natural world. Therefore, the translation below changes the meaning of the poem.
Roses seem red;
Violets seem blue.
I like honey,
And I like you.
That version attempted to say something close to "I perceive the natural world in the way most people do. (Few people would dispute that the most common rose-variety seems red to the human eye, or that violets can appear blue.) Therefore, when I tell you I like honey, I tell you I like a thing most would agree tastes sweet and may also perceive as a pleasing thing in other ways. Therefore by claiming to like honey and to like you, I claim to make that statement with a certainty as absolute as human perception allows."
The usefulness of E-Prime in eliminating prejudice and improving readability, as well as the restrictions it imposes on language, has been questioned by many authors (Lakoff, 1992; Cullen, 1992; Parkinson, 1992; Kenyon, 1992; French, 1992, 1993; Lohrey, 1993). These authors observed that communication in E-prime can still be extremely unclear and imply prejudice, while losing important speech patterns, such as identities and identification. James D. French (1992), a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley, summarised ten arguments against E-Prime as follows: