Earlier this week, Ruthie wondered if I had cabin fever, writing about Helvetica, pornography, and economics in one week.  The impish side of me wondered what other weird topics I could throw in the mix.  Here it comes: E-prime.  My friend Mel is going back to school and mentioned an assignment to write a paper in E-prime.  I’d never heard of it, have you? 

Here is the definition from Wikipedia:

E-Prime uses a modified English syntax and vocabulary lacking all forms of the verb to be: be, is, am, are, was, were, been and being, including their contractions, such as it’s and I’m. Sentences composed in E-Prime therefore are less likely to contain the passive voice. This approach can force the writer or speaker to think differently, and can make written text easier to read. In eliminating most uses of the passive mode, E-Prime requires the writer to explicitly acknowledge the agent of a sentence.

D. David Bourland Jr. explains, “The name comes from the equation E’ = E – e, where E represents the words of the English language, and e represents the inflected forms of “to be.”

Thus, instead of

Roses are red;
Violets are blue,
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

E-Prime would express that ditty as:

Roses look red,
Violets look blue.
Honey seems sweet,
And so do you.

This is folly to the thirteenth degree!  They believe there are no absolutes.  (And how would you translate that sentence to E-Prime? In their system of metaphysics they classify nothing as an absolute.) In an attempt to curb my natural tendency towards shrillness, let’s laugh at this absurdity.  Can you imagine an E-Prime translation of the Bible?

Moses:  Then what shall I tell them?
God said to Moses, I SEEM that I SEEM.

Jesus:  I evaluate myself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

It isn’t right. 

E-Prime advocates are trying to get away from Aristotelian essentialism.  No essences (from the Latin esse – ‘to be’) allowed.    Dr. Donald E. Simanek writes, “Most poetry cannot be rewritten in E-prime. You can’t utter pseudoprofundities like “I think, therefore I am.”…Throw out “My love is like a red, red rose.”  Such constructions encourage vague, imprecise, misleading, ambiguous and foolish writing masquerading as profundity.  We’d have to throw out Shakespeare, which I’d consider no great loss.”

Ay-yi-yi!!  Does Psalm 2 come to mind?  I think writing a paper without using the “to be” forms is a healthy exercise in writing, helpful in learning to show, not tell.  But the root of this is far beyond Writing 101.

I am a woman.  Not: I classify myself in the female gender.
I am a Christian. Not: In my current metaphysical mindset, I choose the subset Christian.
I am happy.  Not; I evaluate myself as happy this morning.

Who are you?

10 thoughts on “E-Prime

  1. Poor, Mel.   I dont think I could stand the pressures associated with this type of inane assignment.  Now we know why Mr Clinton got away with his offenses.  *IS* doesnt exist.

  2. E-Prime has been the source of a great deal of hilarity around our house.  As an exercise in absurdity and linguistic gymnastics, it is good fun.  For instance… While some might say that I demonstrate a lack of sophistication to proclaim that the philosophical advocates of E-Prime and its metaphysical imprecision resemble empty-headed morons, I feel certain I stand solidly on biblical principles in doing so. 

  3. Piffle??? You’re sounding like my grandmother, who would have said, Bosh! Seriously, you have taken my assignment FAR TOO SERIOUSLY. The whole point was to make us think outside our own boxes, our habitual ways of writing and to think about the mechanics of what we’re putting down on paper. The teacher did not advocate this on a routine basis, JUST ONE ASSIGNMENT. Sorry to cause you so much concern 

  4. No, I think you misunderstand, Mel. I think the *writing assignment* is a good exercise, but the *philosophy* behind E-Prime at its roots is reprehensible. My thoughts are not about the assignment you have, but the idea the proponents espouse that this should be the way everyone communicates.  I read several source documents and could have included many more quotes from the founder of E-Prime and his main student.

  5. I agree that it is a good writing assignment exercise.  I once taught a writing class to three siblings who had a very hard time writing anything at all.  Nearly everything they wrote was in the passive voice, among other problems.  I had them write paragraphs for a while that limited them to 3 “to be” verbs per paragraph.  They had a difficult time, but it stretched their abilities greatly.
    On the other hand, Dr. Simanek is all washed up!  He thinks it would be no great loss to throw out Shakespeare??  To be, or not to be, gone, just like that?  I don’t think so. 

  6. Carol, Carol.  I demonstrated, yet once again, my tendencies towards shrillness.  I believe that Nettie should have written this post.  Nettie knows how to laugh and, really, this is laughable.  I will resolve to keep trying.

  7. The only thing sillier than eliminating “to be” (which the Russian language has gotten away with for centuries, at least in the present tense) would be to go a step further and eliminate “to be”‘s sister linking verbs, “grow” and “become”.  Can you imagine a doctrine without those as well?

  8. When Mel told me about the assignment, i also said, “wha??” It’s an interesting exercise in trying to express yourself in a different form, certainly. i didn’t know all the philosophy behind it, though!

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