by Marc Piane
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
The entire concept of the new year’s resolution seems pretty convoluted to me. You set a promise to yourself that you know deep down you are not going to keep and then beat yourself up about your lack of willpower when you break it. Basically you set yourself up for failure. The gym seems fuller than usual in January, but gradually dwindles as the weeks pass. The number of joggers the first week of the year makes driving treacherous. For the past 5 or 6 years I’ve decided to think of a concept to ponder for the year instead. Some past ponders have been clarity, space, and karma. This year I’ve decided to issue myself a bit of a challenge. I know what you are thinking, isn’t that just a traditional new year’s resolution. Indeed, but this is more of a conceptual challenge. A challenge regarding how rather than what. Let me explain.
For the past 25 years I have been fascinated by a concept called E-Prime. Basically E-Prime involves a grammar formulation that removes the verb ‘to be’ from speaking and writing. On the surface this seems kind of superficial. A very “so what” moment. In practice, it can be very hard to do. The verb ‘to be’ conjugates into words that are staples of our language. Words like ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘being’ and the past tense cousins find their way into many sentences in the English language. When writing removing these can prove an interesting challenge. When speaking it can be much harder. E -Prime is an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of reality. My ‘is’ and your ‘is’ might not be exactly aligned. The problem arrives when the collision of the two conceptions if ‘is’ results in cognitive dissonance. Mental pain manifest as physical pain. That never ends well.
I was first introduced to the concept of E-Prime by the philosopher and author Robert Anton Wilson. His concept about “being cynical about our words” really fascinated me. Also the idea that reformulating our written or spoken ideas without ‘is’ statements has an impact on how our minds work. Wilson references a book called Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski was a phenomenologist and one of the founding voices in a field called general semantics. I’ve tried to read this several times and may try again sometime, but I’ll freely admit that it I have not found it the most engaging piece of writing. That said, two essays inspired by Science and Sanity have been enlightening pieces of reading for me. The first is TO BE OR NOT TO BE: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking by D. David Bourland, Jr., a student of Korzybski, and the second is Speaking in E Prime: An Experimental Method for Integrating General Semantics into Daily Life by E. W. Kellogg III. I’ll reference both of these essays later, but for now I’d like to start with a definition of Kellog’s. “In essence, E -prime consists of a more descriptive and extensionally oriented derivative of English, that automatically tends to bring the user back to the level of first person experience.”
Our use of the verb ‘to be’ falls into a few categories. The big idea behind E-Prime is to make our use of the English language less dogmatic. E -Prime is short for English Prime. A particular reformulation. Of course uses such as membership and inclusion such as “this is a cat” are not terribly problematic and the chance of sparking debate are almost nil. The problems for me arise when we use ‘to be’ in predictive statements such as “it is hot” or “it is soft” or worse yet “the music is loud.” Basically any statement that falls into the noun – conjugation of ‘to be’ – adjective construction tends to prove problematic and open for debate. I ran across a quote in my research for this essay from author Ambrose Bierce that I absolutely love. He defined logic as “the art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.” Eliminating conjugations of ‘to be’ attempts to mitigate these limitations.
If you’ve read my essays before you know that the concept of critical thinking is near and dear to my heart. I like to define critical thinking as having an ongoing argument with yourself. This is my favorite part about E-Prime. Any attempt to reformulate a sentence without any form of the verb ‘to be’ necessarily means that we are thinking critically about the ideas that are trying to express. I have also found that this kind of reformulation can add clarity (2016’s ponder word) to the statements we make. In my minimal understanding of the subject, scientific writing contains this kind of syntax. Rather than saying something definitively, science says evidence supports a claim.
This concept might be easier to apply to writing. Writing affords us an almost limitless amount of time to reformulate, and reformulate, and reformulate, and reformulate, and reformulate, and reformulate, and crumple the paper and throw it on the floor… The point is that in editing we have time to scan for ‘to be’ statements and decide whether or not they prove problematic.
It IS much harder in speaking.
There are entire methods, like Kellogg’s essay mentioned above, at removing statements containing conjugations of ‘to be’ from writing and speaking. At least for me I don’t really care about actually removing conjugations of ‘to be’ from my speaking and writing. My goal IS to make sure that my use of a conjugation of ‘to be’ it IS intentional.
The whole idea of E-Prime came into my sphere in probably 1993 or so. Ever since then I’ve toyed with the idea, especially in my writing. This year I’ve decided to see what happens when I apply it to the things I say. I do think that, since I’ve tried to apply this concept to my writing for better than 20 years, it might not be too hard. We’ll see. I don’t really consider the challenge to apply the idea of E-Prime to my speech akin to a new year’s resolution because my goal is not to succeed or fail. In a certain way English with ‘to be’ IS where black and white ideas like resolutions exist. My goal? Think harder about stuff. Think critically. Be intentional. Be cynical about the words I choose.
Happy New Year.