E-Prime and Freedom


To be or not to be ' that is the question. ~ Shakespeare, Hamlet

Let's think for a moment about thought.

We live now in a world in which thought as such really has a relatively small role. We imagine, certainly, that we think almost all the time, but in actuality, our immersion in visual culture and communication has resulted in vague and imprecise feelings and images knocking about in our minds, giving us the impression, the sensation ' the imitation, perhaps ' of thought. Most of us mentally experience a chaotic, non-linear jumble of words and sensations in which one word, one impression, a single sound or scent, can cause a mental association with something illogical.

William Faulkner's novel The Sound and The Fury provides an intriguing instance of such thought. I remember very well my first attempt at reading this book: it opened with a scene of people playing golf, but then that scene suddenly ' and for no obvious reason ' changed and I encountered a different scene: different people during a different time. When it happened a third time, I became so worried and concerned I had to ask my instructor what Faulkner intended in doing this.

I remember how she smiled. 'What's the name of the book?' she asked. I told her. 'Where does it come from?' From Macbeth, I said. 'Tell me the whole quote.' So I did: Life's a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 'Good,' she said. 'The Sound and the Fury has four parts, each from the consciousness of a different person. The first part represents the consciousness of Benjy, who, in the parlance of the Twenties, was an idiot ' he was what we might call today mentally retarded. The book opens with him watching golfers across the street. This golf course now stands on land that his family once owned ' land where he used to play with his sister. His sister's name was Caddy. Now a caddie, of course, carries a golfer's bag, but when he hears that word from one of the golfers, his mind shifts to a time when he played there, to a scene in which Caddy is his sister, and Faulkner indicates this by changing from regular print to italics. Apparently he wanted to show these shifts using colors, but the cost of that would have made the book too expensive to buy.'

This small example illustrates the way our minds can make sudden illogical connections. We've perhaps all experienced such things: a song that suddenly makes us cry or a scent that in an instant takes us back years to a very different time, place, and situation.

True logical thought, however, requires our utilization of words ('logical' deriving, of course, from the Greek word 'logos' meaning 'word'), and of syntax and grammar to structure these words in such a way as to create meaning. And writing allows us the opportunity to give these words, these structures, a tangible reality in the world where we can indeed see them, where we can study and examine them, and even, if we choose, improve them. Writing forces us by its very nature to put that dreamy, chaotic, non-linear stuff we have floating about in our minds into some kind of order ' into a linear progression of words following the natural, instinctive laws of grammar and syntax.

I tell my writing students that writing provides the best opportunity to find out what you think. They believe at first that they'll have no trouble articulating their beliefs, but often when they come up against the reality of actually putting their thoughts into words, they encounter difficulty. Years of poor schooling and of television watching have made it difficult for them to utilize their own native language in such an essential and fundamental way.

Often, their first few attempts at writing, at giving their thought a tangible reality in the world, reflect the vagueness and imprecision of their chaotic, non-linear mental impressions. And since thought essentially stems from the combination of matter (nouns) and energy (verbs) to create a basic, simple reality (clauses), this vagueness not surprisingly stems from general and imprecise nouns combined with the verb to be.

I noticed this heavy reliance on the verb to be relatively early on in my teaching. Sometimes I would do nothing to their essays but circle every form of being that I saw in their paper ' I wanted to give them a visual indication of just how often they used, and how heavily they relied on, not just a single verb but, more importantly, a verb that indicates, especially when used alone, no action whatsoever. I tried to impress upon them the idea that putting being at the center of thought often leads to vague, sloppy, and imprecise thinking and that putting action at the center of thought immediately forces you to become more precise simply because you now have to think harder ' an action requires a responsible party, whereas is or are can take as its subject it or there, thus creating a subject/verb pairing like there are or it is which, although they do contain a subject and verb and thus create simple independent clauses, have absolutely no information content whatsoever.

Only recently, though, have I come across the concept of E-Prime. I first saw it mentioned in Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson. E-Prime, according to the man who coined the term, David Bourland, involves the elimination of the verb to be. As he writes in Working With E-Prime, eliminating being from thought 'encourages, even forces, the user to write, speak and think more clearly and accurately.' It 'automatically eliminates the 'is-dependent', over-defining of situations in which we confuse one aspect, or point of view, of an experience with a much more complex totality.'

For example, you might think and say that you are tired, or that you are a fireman. But do those words accurately describe or define you? You could instead more accurately and precisely say that you feel tired, or that you work as a fireman.

Let's say someone says 'that movie was boring.' This formulation ascribes the quality of 'boring' to the movie itself. But when you eliminate the being from the sentence, you now must say, 'the movie bored me.' The idea of boring-ness changes from an adjective, from a quality of the film, to something that film did to you, which makes a major philosophical difference.

Or let's say something thinks or writes, 'it's a good thing to do.' As the International Society for General Semantics website suggests, you might revise that to: 1) I suggest you do it, 2) My ethics require I do this, 3) In order to achieve your goals, you need to do it, or 4) I want to do it. Notice how drastically each of these revisions differs from one another. It resembles something I've shared with my students in this regard. Think of the statement many of us have heard at one time of another: 'Something should be done about that.' Then take it apart and analyze it a little: something (however we define it) should be done (whatever 'doing' means) about that (again however we define 'that'). We could revise or translate that into anything from 'you should mow the lawn' to 'we should kill him.' In both cases, 'something is being done about that,' but all the terms now have much more precision and definition. And they also differ a great deal.

So how does this relate to freedom? Simply put, such thinking forces you to think more exactly and precisely about life. Rather than think about how you think the world is or how you would like it to be, you have to think about the realities of the world and how things actually work. Rather than think about what government is, for example, you must now consider what government does, and for many people, this kind of thinking, particularly about government, can help them see things hitherto hidden from their consciousness and provide eye-opening revelations. Seeing how things actually work often enables people to see past their preconceived notions of what should be and understand the importance of individual liberty.

As Robert Anton Wilson wrote in his essay Toward Understanding E-Prime, 'consider the human brain as a computer . . . . The wrong software guarantees wrong answers. Conversely, finding the right software can "miraculously" solve problems that previously appeared intractable.

'It seems likely that the principal software used in the human brain consists of words, metaphors, disguised metaphors, and linguistic structures in general. The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, in anthropology, holds that a change in language can alter our perception of the cosmos. A revision of language structure, in particular, can alter the brain as dramatically as a psychedelic. In our metaphor, if we change the software, the computer operates in a new way.'

Thinking and writing in E-Prime can go a long way in helping you understand the importance ' indeed, the primacy ' of the individual and of individual liberty.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.


kborer's picture

I imagine that using the principles of E-Prime would improve most people's writing.

The following criticism of E-Prime from its Wikipedia article seems to be a good reason to not adhere to E-Prime religiously:

A civilization advances when it can move from the idea of individual trees to that of forest. E-Prime tends to make the expression of higher orders of abstraction more difficult, e.g. a student is more likely to be described in E-Prime as "She attends classes at the university".

Glock27's picture

Since I am nothing special, and never have been since I left home 50 years past, and been to college, and earned a Masters in Learning Disabilities, and, and, and so on. I have to say, since I have been a member of this site, I am learning stuff I would never have expected. All I must accomplish now is to learn how to read, not just look at the words. Thanks.