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E-Prime: English without the verb 'to be' (wikipedia.org)
221 points by thameera on Dec 7, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 152 comments

I didn't notice at first, but, like with some other Wikipedia articles, the editors of this one have enforced the E-Prime constraint on the article itself. After the possibility occurred to me and I went back to the page to check, I only found it particularly unnatural in the initial sentence, since almost every other article begins with the sentence "[subject] is [concise definition]."

For a similar example, the "Plot Summary" section of the page about "A Void" also conforms to its subject's constraint--in that case, avoiding the letter "e": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Void#Plot_summary

It surprises me that avoiding forms of "to be" presents such a challenge for me--particularly with this sentence. I feel that it makes my writing sound more repetitive, since I end up replacing "X is" with wordy alternatives like "I find X" or "X seems"; while I'm used to forms of "to be" appearing dozens of times in a paragraph, my replacements stand out more when overused.

Actually the first sentence shows a loop-hole doesn't it?

> E-Prime, a prescriptive version of the English language, excludes all forms of the verb to be.

Doesn't the part parenthesised in commas have a kind of implicit 'is'?

For example E' is supposed to stop me saying things like 'Terminator is a good film and is 2 hours long', but I can say 'Terminator, a good film, lasts for 2 hours'.

It does. Specifically, it is carrying an implicit "which is":

> E-Prime, [which is] a prescriptive version of the English language, ...

That sentence should instead be written:

> E-Prime prescribes a version of the English language which excludes all forms of the verb "to be".

You can add "which is" to turn it into a relative clause, but it functions just fine as an apposition.

Regardless of whether the omitted grammatical structure has a name, it's still skirting the intent of E-prime. If inserting the words "which is" has no obvious affect on meaning, then it should probably be a candidate for rephrasing.


Prescribe seems out of place there, anyhow.

Prescribe is a linguistic jargon. [0] It is exactly the correct word. And the whole point of E' is to remove is in such cases, because it carries an overloaded value which could change from person to person. In this case, a linguist would likely understand that it is prescribing a form of English, but not everyone would share that interpretation.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_prescription

He, my bad then. English is very contextual. Point in case, prescriptive could also mean a speaker of E' must speak prescriptive. As foreign speaker, i then figured it means descriptive, which would've made some sort of sense to me, but is actually the opposite in linguistic terms.

Now I get down into semantics, can E-Prime prescribe something or is it the name of a rule-set that can be prescribed? I lean to the latter, hence my remark is still valid?

On another note, I find the recursion mentioned by OP quite interesting in a broader context. Choice of grammar has meaning itself.

Edit: Ultimately though, language is inherently underspecified, I heard, and I suppose in linguistic context it means a lack of definite distinction. You could go on subdividing prescription into negative and positive, i.e. prohibitive and, say, constructive. You could divide that ad infinitum. No?

Exactly what I thought when I read the article. The proponents wanted to ban a class of semantics but instead chose to ban a relevant but totally different class of syntax.

(can't help rewriting to follow the style)

I have trouble imagining how to answer "What's E-Prime; I've never heard of it." without using the semantics of "to be". And answering that seems to me the primary goal of an encyclopedic article.

If the article starts with "E-Prime prescribes..." I still don't know what E-Prime _is_. Is it a committee? Is it a style guide? (Right now the article says it's a version of English, which, if superficially, at least answers the question).

Your original question is invalid because the questioner would never ask it if they only used E-Prime. Let's re-phrase your question with E-Prime: "Describe E-Prime to me, I've never heard of it."

You get the idea now? The very form of the question affects your understanding of the answer. Through the description you receive, you begin to understand what E-Prime means to those that came up with it. In E-Prime, you literally can't state what it is to anyone else because that would go against E-Prime's rules.

The questioner cannot use E-Prime because he doesn't know what E-Prime is. And before being interested in its description, he'll probably want to know what it is (is it a law? is it a game? is it a style guide? a brain training exercise? is it a dog?).

See, "E-Prime" is a proper noun, and proper nouns don't have a meaning; they instead refer to specific things (giving them an identity). The same way Spain is a country, E-Prime is "a variant of English."

You can't ask "What is E-Prime?" if you are not allowed to use the word is.

The person who has never heard of E-Prime will use the word "is" when asking what E-Prime means.

Makes the first sentence an even better summary, IMO.

Read it as an indefinite enumeration: read the first comma as an inclusive and, then ignore the second comma.

> stop me saying things like 'Terminator is a good film and is 2 hours long'

can't you say

>x is y and z,

do you need the second is?

> E-Prime uses the English language prescriptively.

there, now even the prescription is mentioned in a prescription. How recursive, init?

> Doesn't the part parenthesised in commas have a kind of implicit 'is'?

The part between the commas, I think, is called a subjunctive clause. Does it really break the "rules" of E'? The sentence still contains a verb, so it doesn't look like a loop-hole to me.

Loop holes don't break rules - by definition.

Yes, you're correct - loop holes don't break the rules. I conflated those two concepts. I meant to just ponder whether that clause is a loop hole or an intentionally allowed construct.

Yeah. And aren't there other verbs that have the same god-like implication as "is"?

I was thinking of "to do". If you say something like "X does Y", you're making the same kind of assertion E-Prime seems to want to avoid. Seems to me like another loophole.

I think 'to do' differentiates itself from 'to be' in E' because while people use 'to be' to make global declarations of property (e.g. "That movie is bad" vs "I didn't like that movie"), they use 'to do' to make global declarations of action (e.g. "The IRA does bad" vs "The actions of the IRA reflect violence").

While avoiding 'to do' additionally aides in specificity, I believe avoiding 'to be' has a bigger impact, and avoiding both near impossible.

I was wondering why that first "sentence" wasn't a sentence.

"E-Prime (short for English-Prime, sometimes denoted É or E′), a prescriptive prescribes a version of the English language which excludes all forms of the verb to be."

I haven't checked the whole article, but the second paragraph contains the phrase "could not be expressed," so it doesn't completely adhere to E-Prime.

Edit: I didn't notice earlier while viewing the mobile version of the page, but the Talk page includes a discussion of whether or not to enforce E-Prime. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:E-Prime/Archive_1#Article....

"could not be expressed" is not a derivative of "to be". "be" there allows using "express" without needing the subject (e.g. "I can express my feeling" -> "My feeling can be expressed")

The Wikipedia article specifically mentions that the auxiliary uses of "to be" are also disallowed under E-Prime. (see Different functions of "to be", as well as Criticisms)

> I feel that it makes my writing sound more repetitive, since I end up replacing "X is" with wordy alternatives like "I find X" or "X seems"

In a way, you have found the purpose of E-Prime. While your speech or writing will use more words to avoid use of "to be," you will actually communicate more since you are describing more instead of simply making a proclamation. Word count will increase, but meaning and information will increase as well.

And yes, it did take me a little bit longer to write this comment following the constraint.

"my replacements stand out more when overused" - I have a different experience where repetition of "to be" derivatives equally stand out. As my first editing task after writing a paragraph, I eliminate such repetitions.

Someone made an edit that reintroduced the "is".

change: reintroduce the word "is" to the opening sentence, for clarity; fix sentence where a "speaker" becomes a "writer"


I have spent an entire week writing everything in E-prime. All texts, all IRC chats, all postings, every email.

I also spent the following week trying to speak in E-Prime. This proved very difficult but worth it. I had a notepad with me with several useful phrases in it. Even simple things like ordering from a coffee shop made me stumble. But I would try my best to speak in E-prime. I failed several times!

Writing appeared much much easier. It made emails and other postings less personal, less objective and more subjective and relative. I believe "Non Violent Communication" has many similarities to E-Prime.

Robert Anton Wilson wrote a very good introductory text explaining E-Prime. http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm I suggest you all check it out!

How do you introduce yourself? I find it difficult to find a replacement for:

- I'm Steven

- Hi, my name is Steven

- I'm named|called Steven

The only thing I could come up with "Hi, Steven, nice to meet you" sounds rather forced.

The grammatical rules of English make it more difficult to use this compared to some other languages. E-prime seems very stinted, especially when asking questions:

   Is "less objective" really an advantage over "more subjective" for a hacker?
And let me ask that example question as well. As somebody working in IT, I strive to come across as (nay, to be!) as objective and as precise as possible.

"My friends call me Steven. You will address me as Mr Seagal."

One of the advantages of this restriction on speech is that it forces you to think about relationships between things. In this case, what does it mean to have a name?

In other languages the construction for "My name is Steve" is something like "They call me Steve" (Russian) or "I call myself Steve" (Spanish).

How do you introduce yourself?


Has some suggestions. All seem pretty awkward to me.

Borrowed from Spanish and similar languages:

- They call me Steven.

Probably it sounds wrong for native English speakers.

It's unusual ("exotic"), but the meaning is perfectly preserved, and it's grammatically and semantically valid.

It's the sort of phrase that James Bond might say.

Often the verb "to be" is implied when what's spoken is a reply to someone else's question, e.g. "My name? Steven." as a reply to "What's your name?"

Speaking in E-prime can't be separated from the other person's speech in conversation, and its rules need to deal with this situation.

Hello. Call me Ishmael.

In English, I think this form typically implies that Ishmael is not the speaker's usual name, but just a name that the speaker wants the listeners to use.

E-prime runs in communicative problems because of linguistic marked-ness.

> I'm named|called Steven

It is perfectly normal to use phrasing such as that in some languages apart from English. While not common in English, I think generally it makes more sense this way.

The point was that those are forbidden in E-prime, (they have "am" in them).

Bah. You can see it is ingrained in me.

I meant instead "I call myself ______ ", which is common in Spanish, for example, and other languages.

One could say "I call myself Stephen", but does make it sound like there's something a little weird going on upstairs.

Well, it would sound as if you are literally translating another language. And people may find you weird.

The argument for forbidding "to be" seems a little like the argument for forbidding "is a" (inheritance) relationships in programming: that any "is a" can be expressed more precisely as a "has a" and/or "does _".

I think it's interesting to take the argument even further, to argue for structural types (like interfaces in Go and Typescript, and objects in OCaml) over nominal types (like Java interfaces and Haskell typeclasses). The former just says "if Bar is an interface with method Blaz(int, int, bool), and Foo has a method Blaz(int, int, bool), then Foo is a Bar", while the latter require the programmer to explicitly specify that Foo is a (implements) bar.

I have suspect that naive architecture of a program is heavily affected by native language of the programmer. My native language is easy to parse (14kb parser can parse 98% of technical language, while 200Kb parser can also fix errors), logical and composable, which may be the reason why there is so high rate of good developers from my country: not because we are smarter than average, but because we are taught from birth to think logically.

Can you tell what your native language is? Finnish?

My money is on Ukrainian based on the handle. (Slovak would be a candidate too but less of a fit for "many programmers, etc")

You are right, I am Ukrainian. Ukrainian language is easy to parse: in most cases, just chop largest matching prefixes and suffixes from a word until word root will be left. Then suffixes can be used to understand sentence structure, while roots and prefixes can be used to understand meaning.

I found it interesting too when looking at it from the lens of Inform 7. The reasoning that E-Prime gives to avoid "to be" is largely the reasoning that Inform 7 works very well with its multiple uses of to be. Primarily in that the "god-like objective" sentences make sense when authoring establishing facts in a world state ("The house is blue.").

I bemoan rather than beatify prescriptionists who bequeath their own bespoke English upon the world, befuddled when the rest of us find it somewhere between befouling and beleaguering rather than bewitching. Belike I belabor the point; I can begrudgingly believe avoiding "to be" might bestow a little clarity, sometimes. But betwixt you and I, in excess it bewilders me.

I like it actually, it's like NPOV in Wikipedia, or those exercises for public speaking where you smile while talking to improve the lilt of your speech.

I could see why removing "god mode" for language would improve the clarity - both of the speech as well as the speaker's understanding.

"betwixt you and me"

More prescriptionism?

> But betwixt you and I

you and me ;)

Seems like a useful exercise.

Fun to play with, nevertheless. :)


Sometimes I use E-Prime as sort of a verbose flag for English.

Instead of: "Mount Everest is almost 8 km tall."

A verbose E-Prime version would sound something like: "I recall having read an Wikipedia article that reported the height of Mount Everest as almost 8 km."

Notice all the extra verbs in there.

"Recall"? Could I have mis-recalled?

"Read"? Could I have misread?

"Reported"? Could Wikipedia have misreported it, intentionally or unintentionally?

"Mt. Everest stands 8km tall." In many cases, it's all about moving away from declaring a property of a subject ("X is Y") to using the verb that causes the subject to exhibit the property.

I'm familiar with this concept but this is the first time I've heard of it formalized with a name, or used outside of creative/narrative writing. When I was in high school, a writing teacher made my class perform an exercise to memorize a superset of the "to be" verbs. The rationale was that, while these verbs are direct and objective, they are "flat" and fail to engage a reader.

In the case of descriptors/properties that simply require too much wrangling to find an appropriate verb - the case of color came up elsewhere in these comments, as in "the barn is blue" - the guiding rule is that those descriptors shouldn't be the focus of a sentence in the first place. "The barn was blue" is not interesting enough to stand on its own as a sentence and something else needs to take the verb. "The blue barn loomed over the landscape" or "The blue barn dominated his thoughts."

Writing a Wikipedia article in this style is certainly an interesting exercise, but given the goal of a Wikipedia article I don't think it's a good fit. An encyclopedia entry is not narrative and needs to be direct and objective.

As an aside, her exercise proved to be oddly effective, as I can still recite the list from memory: am, is, are, was, were, have, has, had, be, been, being, do, does, did, can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must. :)

> ... can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must.

I wonder what the reason for removing these are. They are basically evidentiality and epistemic markers [0], and don't really mean anything in and of themselves. Then again, perhaps that was the point?

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality#Evidentiality_an...

Oh, most of those words at the end of your comment are actually allowed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime#Allowed_words

E-Prime just removes "to be". So you can have other simple words, like can and have :)

"Mount Everest has a height of 8km"

Although, I do like your example as it gives a better indication of observer and subjectivity.

Mount Everest measures 8km?

good example, but in an everyday environment couldn't this all be inferred from context? when you say "Mount Everest is almost 8 km tall." I'll understand that you don't mean literally 8000.00m and that you somehow have gotten that information from some more or less reliable source etc.

You could say "Mount Everest rises to almost 8km [above sea level]".

No, none of you make a very strong argument, since it reaches nearly 9km in height.

(damn this IS hard)

E-Prime has two very practical uses:

1. Code documentation. If you write your comments and docs in E-Prime, you will find it a little more difficult to write ambiguous docs. In comments, E-Prime helps you avoid using "is" to describe a variable's contents and type with the same phrasing, which can confuse later readers.

2. ET speech in Sci-Fi movies or Tee Vee shows. If you write, say, a Vulcan's lines in E-Prime, you almost always end up with a slightly foreign, or "scientific" sounding prose.

This is an interesting version of the English language. It is clarifying thinking and strengthening writing.

Or should I say: I find this version of the English language interesting. It clarifies my thinking and strengthens my writing.

Having read 1984, I find the desire to remove undesirable language from our vocabulary quite unnerving.

I realise it has the best of intentions, and nobody is proposing to remove 'to be' from everything. But the discussion here about how adopting E-Prime forces you to rethink what you mean to say, is eerily reminiscent of how Newspeak was used to control people's thought process.

Perhaps, but that sounds more like a kneejerk reaction rather than a real critique.

The idea behind it is supposed to show that by removing the verb 'to be', you have to think more on how to properly convey what you actually mean.

So in a sense it even allows you to get your actual thought process out there rather than having it dismissed for sounding overly harsh for example.

Contrast that to Newspeak, whose design is to limit and shape people's thoughts by external means (Another person chosing what is ok and what not), where as here /you/ get to choose what you say, it is merely the form that changes.

It's not an in-depth critique, you're right. But there are some interesting themes here, and by mentioning 1984 I'm referencing some deep questions in (what I hope is) a fairly shorthand way.

To be more explicit:

1. Do people 'think in a particular language' such that limitations in language limit their thought? This is something that psychologist have considered. The other comments in this thread suggest to me that there might be something in this.

2. Is it dangerous to allow any kind of authority that tells people what they can/can't say? If the answer to #1 is 'yes' then would such a group be too powerful to be allowed to exist?

I'm not very sold on its intentions.

The people who wish to do this are labouring under a great many sceptical confusions and take saying ordinary things like "the pen is red" to be some god-like act. Ie. they wish to subjectivise everything.

It isn't god like at all, and we're not trapped within our own subjective nightmarish experiences for every doomed never to be talking about the world.

It's a very simple thing to make a claim about how the world is and for it to be true (eg. "the sun is aproximately 8 light minutes from earth"). Rewriting language on the basis of some mistaken sceptical pet-principle is the height of absurdity.

cf. http://blog.mjburgess.co.uk/2015/12/objectivity-and-humility...

The irony being that Orwell discouraged using the passive voice in "Politics and The English Language"

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

All rules are there to be broken

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


There's nothing 'ironic' about believing that different changes to language have different merits.

Orwell writes 1984: reader finds "the desire to remove undesirable language from our vocabulary quite unnerving."

Orwell writes essay advising writers to remove undesirable vocabary, part of which OP is an extended exploration.


Perhaps this will help:

All language shapes thought. This is the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis".

"Newspeak" was an attempt to use this principle to shut down thought by taboo-ing entire classes of concept.

E-prime is an attempt to provoke thought by taboo-ing a single concept.

There are good and bad uses for everything.

When I was in high school my mom (a marriage and family therapist) cajoled me into using something like E-Prime. I had to be really careful when making generalizations around her, and the big no-no was to say that something or someone "made me feel" a certain way. It was infuriating at the time but it certainly made me take responsibility for own my feelings and opinions. This experience probably influenced my decision to major in linguistics.

The Turkish language has no "to be" verb at all. In addition, Turkish has an extra verb tense not present in other languages which distinguishes between things that the speaker has observed directly from those they are only relaying 2nd hand.

Turkish lacks a explicit free morpheme (i.e., a separate word) for "to be", but it most definitely has translational equivalents, most notably the "zero copula" used for predicate adjectives and nouns in the simple present tense, declarative mood. All other situations involve an explicit inflectional marker (either a suffix or a clitic) that translates "is/are/were".

This is not unusual; lots of languages work that way. And in my experience, it does reduce the use of copula constructions compared to English, but not by much.

Incidentally, the "extra verb tense" you refer to is formally called "evidentiality", and is not considered the same thing as a" tense" by linguists. That's also fairly common in many languages, though it may seem exotic to English speakers.

I find this article really interesting. I am a native speaker of Spanish and the verb 'to be' is usually one of the first lessons we learn when we study English.

Spanish has to different verbs to depict the meaning(s) of 'to be' -> ser (exist) and estar (stay). I always thought merging those meanings into a single verb did not help to express the richness of the English language.

Within E-Prime some people think that using the verb "to be" for expressing stay, location etc should be allowed. For example: "The shop is over there" or "the cat is on the map" should be allowed. However I think the majority of E-Prime likers think that these should be excluded.

17th Century language geeks thought that English should be more like Latin, so they banned split infinitives.

21st Century language geeks think that English should be more like Klingon, so they ban the verb "to be".

Chinese uses "is" much more rarely than english. And that's something it takes a while to get used to.

For example 中國很大 ("China is very big", literally "China very big")

But for a while you'll be tempted to add an "is" in there.

In fact you can use an "is" to change the emphasis.

Eg. "中國是很大的" (literally "China is very big adjective modifier")

On a tangent, Thai lacks "yes" and "no", and in theory one signals assent by repeating the verb or adjective, with or without a negative modifier.

"Hungry, or?" - "Not hungry" "Take, no?" - "Take"

In practice, people will often grunt for yes, and shake their head and break eye contact for no.

Irish also has no "yes" and "no" also (generally speaking) One has to answer with an affirmative statement. "Do you like tea?" "I do"

"Has mary got the message?" "she has"

"ooh, it's wet outside today" "it is"

"Are you happy?" "I am"

Anecdote warning, but this feels very common to me in "Hibernio-English" as well. I do it a lot when a simple yes/no would suffice, and I notice other people doing the same. I assume it's a construct that translated over from Irish. I must start listening out for native English speakers of different nationalities for comparison :)

Well, "yes" and "no" are (or should be) only a part of a more (logically) complete answer that is usually implied and therefore not mentioned. Derived from your example:

"(Are you) hungry?" - "Yes(, I am hungry)!"/"No(, I am not hungry)!"

I assume that the adverbs "yes" and "no" initially occurred as optional parts of an answer (only to later cast their supplementary part of the answer as the optional one). Curious enough, now when I'm thinking about it, I remember utterances with the usage of "yes" in the questions themselves (especially on some immigrants) - like "Hungry, yes?" I wonder what will this evolve into down the road...

"Yes" is ใช่่ , romanized as chai [1]

"No" is ไม่ , ไม่ใช่ , or เปล่า (mai, mai chai, bplao)

There are many other words that also mean yes/no but those are the direct translations that are used extensively in everyday conversation.

[1] http://www.thai2english.com/dictionary/yes.html [2] http://www.thai2english.com/dictionary/no.html

You clearly speak to different Thai people than me day to day. I have only heard them used to mark pieces of information as being correct or incorrect.


This is basic standard Thai used by all central Thais.

All I can say is that day to day, you must be speaking to different Thais than I am. Chai/mai-chai are only used - again, I must stress, by the 10-50 Thais I speak to in Thai each day - to mean "correct" or "incorrect".

Where in Thailand do you live, and what level of Thai fluency do you have that you're running in to frequent counter-examples?

I've lived in Thailand for 14 years, in Bangkok and now Pak Chong, and speak to Thais everyday. I studied Thai at AUA and then with a private tutor. But that's just my anecdotal experience.

I gave two references to standard Thai, a dictionary and a video teaching basic Thai by native Thai speakers. Both show the Thai words for "yes" and "no". If you have an reference of any kind that indicates there are no words for "yes" and "no" in the Thai language please link to it.

Chinese is the same, actually.

"Do you want an ice cream?" "want"

How do you communicate someone's name then? You can't say "the name IS", or "He/she IS called". The cognate to the word all the other Germanic languages use has become archaic and even lacks a present tense form:


Maybe: "One calls her/him"?

Two ways occur to me.

In passing: This guy walking up, Jake, handles our servers.

Imperative: Call me Ishmael.

AFAIK Russian, which lost the present tense of "to be", just says "my name X" (Меня зовут X).

Italian, which has the verb to be, nevertheless uses a different form: literally "I call me X" (mi chiamo X). "I'm X" (io sono X) would be understood but it's more the answer to who are you than to what's your name.

The Russian phrase means "[They] call me X". "My name [is] X" would be "Моё имя — X".

My Russian is very very basic. Sorry.

Spanish, as well: "Te llamas $NAME" = "You call yourself $NAME", "Me llamo $NAME" = "I call myself $NAME"

Also German. Ich heiße Bob / I am called Bob; wie heißt du / how are you called?

He has the name Jack.

It encourages the separation of entities and their properties, and helps to more accurately represent these. Perhaps :)

I would suggest "He introduced himself as Jack." since we don't actually have access to the name property of people.

Perhaps English speakers found his real name too hard to pronounce, or perhaps he lives under an alias after joining the witness protection program, or perhaps he works as a super spy.

"A boy called Jack"

"He/she calls himself/herself X"?

This is what Spanish and Italian do normally. "Mi chiamo" and "me llamo" both translate to "I call myself."

Other languages probably do the same, but I'm not qualified to speak about anything else.

In Polish we use either "mam na imię X" ("I have the name X") or "nazywam się X" ("I call myself X"). Honestly, I only just realized that the latter form is literally what we're talking about - for my whole life I just had it stored in my head as a phrase meaning "me.name == X".

Dutch has a specific verb ("heten") just for "to be named". Jij heet veridies.

French is similar: Je m'appelle Ryan (I call myself Ryan).

Also German - Ich heisse X (that's supposed to be an eszett)

My Birth Certificate, friends, family, and employers identify me as "Blah".

A few more options:

He goes by the name Jack.

He bears the name Jack.

He answers to the name of Jack.

Everyone calls him Jack.

His parents named him Jack.

...all of which seems circuitous, as if one is being dishonest or misleading. That's the biggest issue I have with E-Prime; speaking in it constantly makes one seem as if they are trying to hide something.

For example: I hear "He goes by the name Jack" and I think, "okay, but what is his real name?" Or: "Everyone calls him Jack" implies once again that "Jack" is not his real name. "His parents named him Jack" implies that he now goes by another name, not his given name.

E-Prime is an interesting thought experiment, but it's simply not practical for real world, everyday speaking. I will grant that it can be effective in writing, but it still seems as if it's only trying to prove a point, and aggressively at that.

Perhaps it seems that way because we are so used to identifying with our names? Not only that but in typical American etiquette we commonly follow up questions of identity with a nonchalant "what do you do?"... I just met you and I'm already seeking job/rank/social status. It's like we are just dying to box people into a convenient category.

If you think about it, a human being has 3 different identities:

1. His true self. Unfortunately we will never know the real Jack, just as we will never really know ourselves.

2. His appearance. This is the sum total of your interactions with Jack. The empirical Jack.

3. His being. You could call this Jack's spirit, or the effect that Jack has on you.

#3 is distinguished from #2 because Jack might be a real jerk, or he may have done something that seemed jerkish to you. Either way, it's clear that he both 1) did something and 2) it had an effect on you. There is an ongoing relationship between you and Jack, and while people are known by their actions, they are not confused with their actions. Therefore we must differentiate between Jack's actions and Jack himself, and so we call the man "Jack" though we often think we are talking about the #1 definition of selfhood when we call him that. But as I mentioned, you truly don't know Jack.

Definitely, using "to be" seems more efficient and understandable for expressions like this, but a lot of other expressions become clearer and more active. I personally wouldn't force myself to only use E-Prime, but I can see the value in trying to avoid "to be" as much as possible, within reason.

Those all sound to me like they're approaching purple prose, particularly in a verbal context.

A not uncommon phrase is "They prefer to be called xxxx".

"to be"

Do we also lose the progressive tense, then? How would one express something like "The car ran me over while I was walking to the store?"

I suppose "The car ran me over while walking to the store," but that's ambiguous, since some sort of walking car could have run me over, when I happened to be sitting on a bench outside the store.

A quick scan through the text and, as far as I can tell, the whole article is written (modulo examples) in E-Prime.

Almost - I count at least five occurrences outside of examples or quotes. Admittedly not bad for an article of its size.

In High School, my English teacher had us write essays in a format that incorporated E-Prime, but I had no idea that it was actually called "E-Prime". In addition to not using forms of "to be," we followed the SEXI format. This meant that every body paragraph was composed of four parts: Statement, Explanation, eXample, and Interpretation (one web site lists this as Importance). I think that in short essays each SEXI paragraph also had to be four sentences long.

The combination of E-Prime and SEXI was a real challenge to write at first, but with practice I found that it led to really solid papers with greater clarity of thought. It was a tremendous help in writing my college senior thesis.

Unlike the article, I didn't try to use either form in my comment. :)

> Unlike the article, I didn't try to use either form in my comment. :)

I'll give it a shot. This proved harder than I thought it would, and might read awkwardly. (Especially the "actually called 'E-Prime'" part. I can't think of a way of rewording that that doesn't sound weird.)


In High School, my English teacher had us write essays in a format that incorporated these rules, but I had no idea that it had a name: "E-Prime". In addition to not using forms of "to be," we followed the SEXI format. This meant we composed every body paragraph from four parts: Statement, Explanation, eXample, and Interpretation (one web site lists this as Importance). I think that in short essays each SEXI paragraph also couldn't number more than four sentences.

The combination of E-Prime and SEXI created a real challenge to write at first, but with practice I found that it led to really solid papers with greater clarity of thought. It tremendously helped in writing my college senior thesis.

I haven't read the paper/books but from the wiki article I find it problematic that "the code is red" is replaced with "we see the coat as red". Specifically if I were forced to use E' it would be very hard to argue certain philosophical positions. Objectivism vs. Subjectivism for example or to return to the coat...there could be a philosophical difference between the redness of the coat and the perception of it and not everyone wants to bundle those. Due to this reason I find it rather curious that identity was picked as one of the troublesome uses. Identity seems like one of the most important uses of is for me.

Without thinking about it too deeply, formal logic would probably also be rather funky.

>Specifically if I were forced to use E' it would be very hard to argue certain philosophical positions. Objectivism vs. Subjectivism for example

Some philosophers, e.g. early Wittgenstein, would argue that certain philosophical positions only exist by sleight of tongue, being based upon some form of incoherence that can only exist in imprecise language.

From his Tractatus (note that he sort of changed his mind in his later work): "The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science--i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy -- and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person--he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy--this method would be the only strictly correct one.

E' version...

Some philosophers, e.g. early Wittgenstein, would argue that certain philosophical positions only exist by sleight of tongue because the philosophers who held these positions based their theories upon some form of incoherence that can only exist in imprecise language.

From his Tractatus (note that he sort of changed his mind in his later work): "The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science--i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy -- and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person--he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy--this method would be the only strictly correct one."

A charitable interpretation would suggest that you can replace "the coat is red" with "we see the coat as red" or "the coat reflects mostly in the 620-750 nm spectrum" depending on the context (whether the subject is psychological perception or physical properties).

But certainly it seems to be a theme with these "logical" languages, to embed questionable philosophical assumptions that don't hold up under more careful analysis...

"The coat looks red"

"The coat has a red colour"

I'd rather not wear my code :-).

Sounds more like a statistical misattribution to me.

1. Many unclear English sentences have "to be".

2. Therefore, let's disallow "to be" to make English clearer.

Well, the obvious alternate explanation is:

3. Since "be" is an extremely common word, for most attribute X, a subset of "English sentences with attribute X" will naturally have many sentences with "to be".

I mean, in what way is "Mars is round" any less clear/objective/interesting than "Mars orbits around the sun"?

The point of E' is to provide a kind of mental exercise. By forcing yourself to write this way, you discover clearer ways to make your point, or to convey information.

Think of it like the weights baseball players put on their bats during practice. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball_doughnut)

I understand that it can be an interesting mental exercise. I'm just objecting to the underlying assumption that "be" makes sentences inherently unclear or subjective. For exercise, you could instead have excluded, say, every five-letter word, but (hopefully) nobody will claim that five-letter words make English unclear.

It seems to me that E-prime works only because "be" is so common that you're forced to rewrite almost every sentence, yet it carries so little "semantic weight" that all such sentences can be rewritten with a bit of practice.

This reminds me of how most people seem to use "hopefully." I very seldom hear people say "I hope this works." Instead, almost every time I hear, "hopefully, this works." It seems to have a "language smell" of wanting a way to weasel out making a commitment to a particular stance or viewpoint.

I have noticed an interesting effect where initially one is given the freedom to use all tools available to achieve a task, and over time restricted to an increasingly smaller subset. I find that this makes me optimize the process and in case of writing computer code, makes for easier to understand and more stable building blocks.

This helps achieve the objective in general semantics of 'silence on the objective level.' In other words, that none of us have access to reality unfiltered by our senses and our linguistic programs, so it is best to not make statements that assume we do.

"none of us have access to reality unfiltered by our senses and our linguistic programs"

That sounds like a statement about "reality unfiltered by our senses and our linguistic programs".

It's not uncontroversial either, as lots of people have in fact claimed to have just such access.

If I'm not mistaken, Russian does not have the verb 'to be', right?

It's omitted only in the present tense. http://masterrussian.com/verbs/bit_pobit.htm

Ah, nice. Thanks for clarifying. I learn something new every day :)

As evidenced by some of these HN comments, E-prime encourages a voodoo-like approach to writing, in which you can magically make bad writing better just by doing a search-and-replace on a few words.

Could we also change the number system. All teen numbers are switch to ten-# as in Eleven is Ten-One, twelve is Ten-Two.

So, instead of "X is Y", we now we have to say "the equality relation has member (X,Y)".

Very handy.

Shakespeare would not have appreciated this. How do you say "to be or not to be" in EPrime?

The article gives this as an example. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime#Examples

  To live or to die,
  I ask myself this.

Almost a haiku but not sure as memorable.

In particular is eprime-mode for emacs: https://github.com/AndrewHynes/eprime-mode

This is unlikely to see widespread adoption. Boooom!

I think, therefore...wtf?

I think, therefore I exist.

I'll allow it:-)

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