Linguists define E-Prime as English without the use of the verb to be or any of its conjugations, inflections, contractions, and tenses. To reiterate: E-Prime entirely prohibits any use of is, am, are, were, was, be, been, or being, as well as archaic forms (like art), contracted forms (like isn't), and colloquial forms (like ain't). It allows the use of other linking verbs, such as to appear and to seem.
Using E-Prime confers two primary advantages:
Accuracy: As the grand-daddy of all linking verbs, to be has two uses: predication and identification.
Predication consists of assigning a quality to an object. Syntactically, predication usually follows the form of:
(Noun Phrase) (to be) (Adjective Phrase).
- (1) "That movie is great."
- (2) "This job is boring."
- (3) "Tomatoes are disgusting."
These three examples demonstrate a common problem with predication: it cannot escape subjectivity. When one substitutes "I liked that movie" for "That movie is great," the subjectivity of the statement leaps to the foreground. We've all grown so accustomed to "is" that it fails to trigger alarm bells when we read it: its familiarity tends to mask its hubris and facade of objectivity.
When John tells me "I liked the movie," no one has any difficulty spotting the subjectivity of his observation. By phrasing his thesis thus, he accepts and accounts for the possibility that others might not like the movie. But when he says "That movie is great," I cannot see the movie and dislike it without disagreeing with him. "No," I might reply, "the movie is not great. It is terrible." But why should a contradiction exist? We all understand the concept of subjectivity, and we all recognize that the laws of the universe permit John and myself to have simultaneous but different opinions about the quality of a movie. Subjective theses can disagree; objective facts cannot. Quite simply, to be makes it far too easy to shroud our subjective thoughts in a garb of objectivity and consequently invite spurious contradiction.
We also use the verb to be for identification: the equation of one thing to another. Identification most often takes the form of
(Noun Phrase) (to be) (Noun Phrase)
A few examples:
The first example again demonstrates undercover subjectivity undermining the integrity of the sentence. But identification introduces an even more insidious pitfall: imperfect equation. More so than any other linking verb, to be verbally equates two objects or concepts utterly. But if one concept truly equaled another, we wouldn't need different words to distinguish between them. Hence, any use at all of "is" as identification generally introduces some degree of inaccuracy.
Mathematically, if A = B and A = C, then B = C. But if John is a statistician and John is a man, then the conditions of being male and being a statistician must equate. Clearly they don't, and that suggests an error in the act of equation itself.
Here, one might object (and indeed some have): "a man" and "a statistician" refer only to instances of each -- not to the entirety of the concept. But that doesn't cut it: "George Bush is the President; the President is the name of a job. Therefore George Bush is the name of a job." Here, admittedly, I've used different meanings of "President" -- in one case, the man it refers to, and in another, its definition.
But this really strikes at the heart of the problem: by conflating all meanings of a rich concept into a single, authoritative "THE PRESIDENT," and by casually allowing one to address all meanings simultaneously and indiscriminately, "is" blurs the thought process. If the sentences read, "George Bush holds the office of the President; we define the President as the name of a job," then no blurring would occur. The use of to be flaws the logical rigor of a concept; its avoidance upholds the concept's logical integrity.
Style: Merely refraining from use of to be often makes writing stylistically superior. Like all matters of style, of course, the advantages tend toward the subjective, and a bad writer in ordinary English will doubtless fail to compose stunning prose in E-Prime. Again, the advantages come in two primary areas:
It all but forces one to use the active voice. Without to be to coordinate a passive sentence, "The ball was kicked" becomes "John kicked the ball." Literary critics, writers, English teachers, and MS Word all generally agree that the abuse of the passive voice promotes a certain impersonality and stiffness of prose. While one can achieve consistent use of the active voice by practice alone (without omitting to be from one's vocabulary), the temptation persists and the occasional accident occurs. Banishing the coordinating verb altogether makes the decision to use only the active voice binding. Only such grotesque verbal contortions as perverting to get ("the ball got kicked") will allow one to sidestep E-Prime's passive voice policing.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, verb diversity becomes paramount. The usage of E-Prime demands creativity in verb choice and a corollary elegance of sentence structure. For example, consider sentence (5) above. Rather than "John is a statistician," one might say "John conducts statistical studies for a living," or "John compiles statistics for an insurance company." These place the emphasis on the acts of compilation and conduction as criteria for the label of statistician rather than the act of being. Even the more mundane "John works as a statistician" places the focus on work rather than simple existence. And all three alternatives provide the listener with a certain color that he cannot distill from the original.
Consider how one might rephrase sentences (2) and (3):
- (2') "This job bores me."
- (3') "Tomatoes disgust me."
Not only did we phrase both sentences in correctly subjective terms, they've become stylistically superior as well.
E-Prime can improve writings' accuracy and style. It scores points for elegance and for simplicity. Of course, it also introduces certain downsides. E-Prime proscribes certain cliches entirely ("A bird in the hand... um... has more value than two in the bush?"), and some cultural expressions require verbal backflips to circumlocute (try answering "What's your name?" in a complete E-Prime sentence...). Certainly, circumstances exist in which to be doesn't degrade the accuracy or style of a sentence; one might cite Descartes's I think, therefore I am as the most obvious. Yet like the famous null pointer and GOTO command, I find that reasoned avoidance (rather than slavish insistence) serves one best.