E-PRIME

alfred-korzybski-4

In 1933, in Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski proposed that we should abolish the “is of identity” from the English anguage. (The “is of identity” takes the form X is a Y. e.g., “Joe is a Communist,” “Mary is a dumb file-clerk,” “The universe is a giant machine,” etc.) .

In 1949, D. David Bourland Jr. proposed the abolition of all forms of the words “is” or “to be” and the Bourland proposal (English without “isness”) he called E-Prime, or English-Prime.

A few scientists have taken to writing in E-Prime (notable Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. E.W. Kellogg III). Bourland, in a recent paper tells of a few cases in which scientific reports, unsatisfactory to some members of a research group, suddenly made sense and became acceptable when re-written in E-Prime. By and large, however, E-Prime has not yet caught on either in learned circles or in popular speech.

(Oddly, most physicists write in E-Prime a large part of the time, due to the influence of Operationalism -- the philosophy that tells us to define things by operations performed -- but few have any awareness of E-prime as a discipline and most of them lapse into "is-ness" statements all too frequently, thereby confusing themselves and their readers. )

Nonetheless, E-Prime seems to solve many problems that otherwise appear intractable, and it also serves as an antibiotic against what Korzybski called “demonological thinking.” Most of this book employs E-Prime so the reader could begin to get acquainted with this new way of mapping the world; in a few instances I allowed normal English, and its “isness” to intrude again (how many of you noticed that?), while discussing some of the weird and superstitious thinking that exists throughout our society and always occurs when “is” creeps into our concepts. (As a clue or warning, I placed each “is” in dubious quotation marks, to highlight its central role in the confusions there discussed).

Garbage In, Garbage Out = GIGO

As everybody with a home computer knows, the software can change the functioning of the hardware in radical and sometimes startling ways. The first law of computers – so ancient that some claim it dates back to dark, Cthulhoid aeons when giant saurians and Richard Nixons still dominated the earth – tells us succinctly, “Garbage In, Garbage Out” (or GIGO for short).

The wrong software, controlling the hardware, guarantees wrong answers, or total gibberish aka GIGO. Conversely, the correct software, if you find it, will often “miraculously” solve problems that had hitherto appeared intractable.

Since our brain receives raw data, AND edits data as we receive it, we need to understand the software the brain uses. The case for using E-Prime rests on the simple proposition that “is-ness” sets the brain into a medieval Aristotelian framework and makes it impossible to understand modern to do and to get. A classic case of GIGO, in short. Removing “is-ness” and writing/thinking only and always in operational language sets us, conversely, in a modern universe where we deal with modern to do.

Primer

The term E-Prime (short for English Prime) refers to a dialect that completely removes the verb ‘to be’ in all its forms from the English language.

It turns out that the use of the verb to be alone may respond for a great deal of faulty reasoning we commonly find. Intentionally or not, people tend to abuse that verb, perpetuating a way of thinking that hinders proper critical thinking.

E-Prime helps bring awareness to how we use language and how it impacts thinking. It serves as a practical starting point for a less dogmatic way of thinking, and it goes much further than merely finding word substitutions for the missing ‘to be’s.

Now, consider for a minute how much you use the verb to be. Eliminating it from language means you can’t say sentences such as “The sky is blue”, “John is smart” or even the simplest “I’m hungry”. In fact, by my own reckoning, I estimate that about half of the phrases we say contain to be in some form.

Although we can easily reword “I’m hungry” as “I feel hungry”, in many cases the E-Prime conversion shows itself far from trivial.

Become a Better Thinker

1. It Exposes Opinions Disguised as Facts

Consider “Beethoven is the best composer ever”, or “This is a stupid idea”. These sentences illustrate how we express opinions as if they represented established facts. Getting rid of to behelps us remember that much of what we say represents, as a matter of fact, just opinions. Consider the E-Prime alternatives for those sentences: “I like Beethoven’s compositions best”, and “I utterly dislike this idea!”.

2. It Promotes Higher Accuracy and Exposes Hidden Assumptions

Refraining from using the verb to be may require you provide much more detail than usual. For instance, when rewording “Jack is smart”, you could end up with “Jack scored 140 on his IQ test” or maybe “Jack earns money without working” — depending on your definition of ‘smart’. E-Prime encourages you to detail ambiguous words (such as ‘smart’), helping expose any hidden assumptions behind them.

3. It Reveals the (Fallible) Observer

Consider the statement “The Earth is round”. Notice how the verb to be carries with it an intellectual momentum of completeness, finality, and time-independence. It sounds like an absolute, immutable truth, doesn’t it? Yes, it does… exactly like the statement “The Earth is flat” just a few hundred years ago.

The alternative E-Prime construct “The Earth looks round” shows that an observer exists — an observer that simply perceives the Earth as round — and that this observer may have flaws in perception. E-Prime brings back a certain ‘humbleness’ in language, getting rid of the “God Mode” in speech and reminding us we make mistakes.

4. It Avoids Premature Judging and Labeling

E-Prime discourages abstractions that lead to labeling and prejudice. Contrast “Mary is Christian” with “Mary believes in the existence of Christ”. While these two sentences have the same meaning, the E-prime version avoids any prejudices associated with the label ‘Christian’.

As a side note, labeling happens not only when dealing with other people, but with ourselves. If you find yourself saying “I’m a pig!”, try the E-Prime “I eat like a pig”, or, going further, “I ate twice as much as I usually do at dinner”.

5. It Brings the Role Players Back

When using E-Prime, you’ll soon notice that using passive voice can get very hard. Although this looks limiting at first, I can tell that you’ll hardly miss passive voice once you get used to it.

When you can’t resort to uncompromising statements such as “Mistakes were made”, you’ll have to rephrase it as, say, “Steve made a mistake”. Or, if you really don’t know (or don’t want to expose) the doer, you could use “Someone in this room made a mistake”. This latter statement still rises as a superior alternative to the former, since at least you explicitly point out that exists a doer behind the action.

6. It Makes Language More Colorful

Before using it, I believed that E-Prime would make language more convoluted, duller and less personal.

Granted, your language may suffer if you have just taken your first steps in E-Prime (like me). However, with a little bit of practice, you’ll notice that E-Prime provides an excellent opportunity for a much more vibrant and vigorous way of writing. (Or do you think I didn’t consider the verb to be before choosing provides in the previous sentence?)

E-Prime promotes not only richer verb diversity but also improvements in style, too. If forced to rewrite common sentences such as “Sarah is wealthy”, one can come up with many stylistically superior variations instead, such as “Sarah possesses many riches”.

7. It Stimulates Debate

“You’re wrong”! In E-Prime, this easily turns into “I don’t see it that way”. This style of communication immediately opens the possibility for debate, without the need to overturn the other person’s statements first. Declarations such as “I liked the movie” invite healthy discussion and the sharing of different opinions — much more enticingly than the usual “The movie was good”.

In E-Prime, we deal with perceptions, not absolute truths. And perceptions never override each other, and thus can never clash.

8. It Improves Creativity

E-Prime can also help in the realm of creativity and problem solving. Firstly, it dissolves notions such as “There is no solution!”, turning them into superior choices such as “I haven’t found any solutions (yet)”.

More than that, E-Prime helps you overcome generalizations and get to the facts more objectively, enabling you to find solutions initially overlooked. After some E-Prime reframing, “The customer is stupid!” could become “The customer won’t buy our product even though it costs less”. The latter makes a much better starting point for coming up with solutions than the former.

9. It Exercises Your Brain

If for nothing else, try E-Prime for an excellent brain workout! Trust me, you’ll never know how challenging it gets if you don’t try it. Learning E-Prime feels exactly like learning a new language, except that instead of learning new constructs, you must ‘unlearn’ part of what you already know. It will fire up your neurons!

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