The Nature and Scope of E-Prime

A friend recently criticized my understanding and use of E-Prime. This resulted in a short conversation about the nature and scope of E-Prime, and a deeper understanding of E-Prime for us.

First let me give you some context.

My friend writes science fiction short stories, and he occasionally will give me a pre-print of something he wants to publish for feedback.

Recently, he started to experiment with E-Prime in his stories.

E-Prime prescribes that you never use the verb “to be” or any of its conjugations and contractions.

For example, E-Prime would not allow me to say “I am Jonathan” because the word “am” is the first person present tense conjugation of the verb “to be”.

In order to express the same idea under E-Prime, I would have to say something like “I call myself Jonathan”, or “you can call me Jonathan”.

Why Communicate in E-Prime?

My friend wanted to constrain his language to be less judgemental, and he argues that E-Prime leads to less judgemental language.

When you write a sentence like “Jonathan is a bad person” the reader might assume that you are passing judgement, and are thus a judgemental person. However, if you rephrase the sentence to “Jonathan seems like a bad person” then the reader can only conclude that you are simply giving an opinion.

The clause “Jonathan is a bad person” is an example of a class membership.

In this case, you are saying that Jonathan belongs to the set of bad people. However, some people might argue that Jonathan belongs to the set of good but misunderstood people. Afterall, who are you to pass judgement on such a person?

Further, it is very hard to control how people will interpret your words. A good writer will find ways to clearly express his ideas in unambiguous ways (assuming that is his intention).  Since the verb “to be” can have many different uses depending on the context, readers might interpret it differently.

This happens because the word “to be” has many different uses. For example, the E-Prime wikipedia page states that the verb “to be” can be used to express (a) identity, (b) class membership, (c) class inclusion, (d) prediction, (e) auxiliary, (f) existence, and (g) location.

Hence, E-Prime leads to stronger less ambiguous writing which happens to be less judgemental: you can’t really express class membership unless you really go out of you way to do it.

When Things Get Awkward

I personally believe that E-Prime is a great rule to follow. However, I couldn’t help but notice odd phrasings when I read his story.

The odd phrasings throughout the story made it incredibly difficult to actually enjoy the story because it would interrupt my train of thought.

For example, the clause “she had not stopped eating by the time he arrived” just seems incredibly awkward, and that awkwardness defocused me.

Further, the best way I know how to rewrite this clause is as “she was eating when he arrived”. However, this rewriting involves the third person present progressive conjugation of the verb “to be”.

The Intention of the Law vs. the Letter of the Law

I realized at this point that we actually use the verb “to be” for both semantic and syntactic reasons. Identity, class membership, class inclusion, prediction, existence, and location are all semantic uses of the verb “to be”, but using a conjugation of “to be” as an auxiliary verb is a syntactic use.

For example, “Jonathan is a bad person” is a semantic use of the verb “to be”. In this case, we are expressing class membership. However, “she was eating when he arrived” is a syntactic use of the verb “to be”. In this case, we are simply conjugating the verb “to eat”, and we are using a conjugate of “to be” to do it.

By disallowing the verb “to be” in all of it’s uses we also disallow all forms of the progressive and perfect progressive tenses. This is a very high price to pay, IMO.

Conclusion

E-Prime is great. However, you should use it to constrain your use of semantics, and not syntax. E-Prime is a means to an ends.

I personally like to use it to achieve a more concise and expressive writing style. However, you can only do that if you use it with intention, and not blindly following the rule.

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