Have you ever heard of E-Prime? I hadn’t, until this afternoon, when a friend dropped off a photocopy of an article about E-Prime by Cullen Murphy in a 1992 issue of The Atlantic.
E-Prime stands for English-Prime. It is (according to this evening’s Wikipedia) “a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms.”
It sounds like an Oulipian exercise, but no. In serious circles, it’s taken much more seriously than Oulipo is. Avid supporters and avid detractors of E-Prime can be found in any field that requires the regular publication of academic papers.
E-Prime is based on the work of Alfred Korzybski, who in 1933 founded something he called general semantics. To its supporters, general semantics is a discipline, to its detractors it’s a linguistic cult. No matter, when it comes to the verb “to be,” Korzybski was on to something. “Is” creates equivalences that don’t exist – it’s obvious, if you think about it.
George Santayana noticed the problem ten years before Korzybski’s book, as Cullen Murphy notes in The Atlantic piece.
"The little word is has its tragedies," George Santayana wrote in 1923, in a passage that general semanticists quote frequently and fondly.
"It names and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger. Whenever I use the word is, except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder...."
Santayana's complaint had to do with locutions like "Mary is a woman" and "Mary is cold," in which the verb is implies the tight coupling of equivalent things, whereas in fact in the first instance it joins nouns that have different levels of abstraction and in the second it joins a noun to an adjective that neither completely nor permanently qualifies it. Transgressions like these may seem trivial, but in fact they pose fundamental problems of logic, and they greatly bother critical thinkers.
Korzybski’s prescription, to eliminate the verb “to be” from the English language, was not meant to be a new English language; it was a template for clear and precise communication.
Some teachers use E-Prime as a writing exercise. Its use as a teaching tool was promoted in a 2003 article in English Teaching Forum, a journal published by the State Department’s Office of English Language Programs: “English Prime as an Instructional Tool in Writing Classes,” by John C. Herbert.
Herbert’s opening paragraph:
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 [English as a second language] and EFL [English as a first language] students to improve their language learning within the process of writing.
After an hour of googling, I’ve put together this summary of the origin and apotheosis of E-Prime.
1) George Santayana incidentally, and Alfred Korzybski pointedly, identify overuse of the verb “to be” as a source of confusion, misdirection and fuzzy thinking.
2) In 1938 Korzybski, two Chicago psychiatrists, and the heir to a plumbing fortune, establish the Institute of General Semantics. ISG’s purpose is to the practical implementation of Korzybski’s theory that language imposes limitations on the psyche that hobble understanding and restrict human potential. The sloppy overuse of “to be” is only one of the problematical intersections between language and psychology identified by Korzybski and his General Semantics colleagues.
3) In 1966, D. David Bourland, Jr., in the General Semantic Bulletin, proposes a new, “is”-free language, which he calls E-Prime.
4) Bourland’s suggestion remains dormant until 1987, when "Speaking in E-Prime", by E. W. Kellogg III, appears in another ISG publication, ETC: A Review of General Semantics.
5) Kellogg’s article catches the attention of some of the people in academia who, now that deconstructionism has begun to smell bad, have been looking for other fish to fry. 6) In the early 1990’s replacing English with E-Prime becomes the main preoccupation of the ISG.
7) In the 21st century, the linguistic principles of Alfred Korzybski are subsumed in a virulent battle between grandiloquent partisans of E-Prime and its equally fustian scoffers.
After all that, I am still in a quandary: Is E-Prime a linguistic discipline, a better language than plain English (with its pesky “is”) to communicate in, or is it the esoteric lingo of a small academic coterie?
A glance at Google News makes it look like E-Prime is a coming thing. Within the last two months E-Prime was mentioned twice in articles for general consumption.
Once, in February, Jeremy Clarke wrote about E-Prime in his regular column in The Spectator, “Low Life”. The lead-in for “Dinner with Enoch Powell's Postman” was “It was a blessed relief after the Doc's conversational barrage about the joys of E-prime, Crispr and LSD.”
In March, E-Prime was mentioned in reviews of a memoir, Scoundrel Days, by an Australian writer, Brentley Frazer. From a review in The Saturday Paper:
The early passages in which [Frazer] navigates a rough-as-guts childhood, fighting his way through school and avoiding the sexual predator tramp preachers who have raped his friends, are compelling, doubly so because Frazer has chosen to write the text in English Prime. This literary affectation, which eschews all use of the verb “to be”, is a staggering undertaking for a memoir writer. It works admirably, as it denies the opportunity to excessively navel gaze, and lends the narrative a novelistic feel.
The fact that E-Prime was compared to LSD in The Spectator and called a “literary affectation” in the Sidney Morning Herald does not diminish the possibility that E-Prime is trending in the zeitgeist. Quite the opposite: just look at the first portrayals of existentialism in the popular press.
The most convincing evidence that E-Prime is a cult is its genesis, which conforms to the usual cult origin narrative: an enthusiastic disciple (Bourland) raises deifies a dead master (Korzybski) and presents his theories as absolute truth. Actually, the origin narrative of E-Prime is similar to that of Christianity’s, in that there are three individuals involved: Korzybski, in the role of Jesus; Bourland, in the role of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John; E. W. Kellogg III as St. Paul. The Institute of General Semantics plays the role of Rome at the time of Constantine.
The fact that D. David Bourland, Jr. does not have a Wikipedia entry, while any twelve-year-old with a garage band whose parents paid $300 for 100 copies of a CD to sell on CD Baby can make it into Wikipedia, points to an anti-E-Prime cadre in the vast Wikipedia editorial community. That, in turn, casts doubt on the Wikipedia article on general semantics which denigrates it from an academic discipline to “a self improvement and therapy program.”
In its relentless efforts to establish E-Prime as standard written English in academia, the Institute of General Semantics may be stripping E-Prime of its raison d’être and turning it into an Oulipian exercise. For academic writers who might otherwise be bored by writing, once again, about some same old thing, it can provide the excitement of having a puzzle to solve. Then, if you do write your next paper without using the verb “to be,” there is a chance that it might be accepted by ETC and look swell on a CV.
“Something” is the best I can do, because general semantics is described as one thing in one Wikipedia article, and as quite another thing in another.
According to the Wikipedia article on Korzybski, “Korzybski's work culminated in the initiation of a discipline that he named general semantics (GS). This should not be confused with semantics. The basic principles of general semantics, which include time-binding, are described in the publication Science and Sanity, published in 1933.”
According to the Wikipedia article on general semantics: “General semantics is a self improvement and therapy program begun in the 1920s that seeks to regulate human mental habits and behaviors. After partial launches under the names human engineering and humanology, Polish-American originator Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) fully launched the program as general semantics in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
Santayana wrote, “It marries and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; etc.” not – as Cullen has it – “It names and identifies etc.”
That sentence, from Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith, appears almost as a non-sequitur in the middle of a paragraph that begins with an elaborate Hoffmanesque metaphor (for “transitive knowledge,” which Santayana discusses in the preceding paragraph) of a child who believes that people are animated clothing, and then, in a tailor’s shop, is traumatized by seeing lifeless clothes hung on manikins.
In its article about E-Prime, under the heading “Criticisms,” to a 10-point critique contra E-Prime by “James D. French, a computer programmer at the University of California,” Wikipedia appends:
“According to an article (written in E-Prime and advocating a role for E-Prime in ESL and EFL programs) published by the Office of English Language Programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department of the United States, ‘Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing.’”
Without coming right out and saying so, the paragraph makes it seem that E-Prime was official United States State Department policy. The thrust of this misleading impression is Machiavellian. Set against James D. French’s ten sensible objections to E-Prime, the insinuation that the State Department promotes E-Prime adds a political dimension to the E-Prime controversy: Now the government jackboots are telling us we have to teach the damn thing.
From Wikipedia, with editors' notes:
"The essay quickly generated controversy within the general semantics field, partly because practitioners of general semantics[who?] sometimes saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages."
The Spectator, Feb. 17, 2017:
Another conversation revolved around E-prime, a radical new method of writing English that abjures the verb ‘to be’ because it deifies the writer’s identity and opinions. Instead of writing, say, ‘A fetus is a person’, under E-prime rules I should put: ‘In my system of metaphysics, I classify a fetus as a person.’ This seems po-faced and long-winded to me. Evangelists for E-prime believe, however, that changing the structure of language can alter the structure of the human brain as radically as a psychedelic drug. Doc is very excited about E-prime and hopes it takes hold.
Sidney Morning Herald, March 15, 2017:
In the early 2000s, not long after this book's close, Frazer would become publisher and editor of cutting-edge literary magazine Retort, and as a "bareknuckle poet" he was a founding member of the Speed Poets events in Brisbane. Scoundrel Days is written in E-Prime, the discipline founded by Alfred Korzybski that rejects the use of the copula (the verb "to be") in order to combat literary laziness.