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E-Prime – English without the verb “to be” (wikipedia.org)
108 points by isomorph 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments

In Spanish, we have two different versions of "to be": 'ser' is for defining what something is (I am a human), and 'estar' is for temporary states of being (I am sad). I do find it strange that English assigns the two meanings to one word.

I never got far into Spanish, but I remember that there were exceptions to that rule. Like things that aren't really permanent, but still use ser.

In the end I just saw it as a strange and random language quirk. Like articles in German or Dutch.

Yeah, I think about this a lot as I've been brushing up on my Spanish lately. A lot of people are eager to come up with and apply "rules" to the grammar, but I suspect most of these rules are post-hoc, and the way it _really_ works is largely statistical. Peter Norvig has a great discussion here[0] that asserts as much, compared to Chomsky's idea that language is based on instinctual rules.

I help out on /r/EnglishLearning, and a lot of the time my answers are like, "well, I don't know why but it sounds better this way...", which makes me think of the statistical model.

On the Spanish side, I recently thought about it with regard to the subjunctive mood, and in particular its use with the verbs pensar and creer (to think/believe). The upshot is that you use the indicative mood in the positive case, and subjunctive mood in the negative case (creo que estas bien / no creo que estés bien). People give lots of motivated reasons for why this is, and how in the negative case you're not "sure" of it, while in the positive case you're "sure" that you "think" it, or something like that. But ultimately, I think it's just the simple aforementioned positive/negative rule that native speakers build up over time from being exposed to sentence constructions, maybe without even realizing it, and only post-hoc rationalize why it is.

[0] https://norvig.com/chomsky.html

As a native speaker of portuguese, which uses the exact same two words, I can't think of any exceptions.

I don't see why this would be a "strange" and "random" language quirk when it makes perfect sense in practice. The only situations I can see where it wouldn't make perfect sense would be in situations where you're translating to English, which is not a productive way to think about languages.

Not to pick a fight (just a student of spanish), but my spanish teacher would caution us against the categorization of permanent vs temporary and gave us acronyms instead because of examples like:

It is 1 => Es la una (describing time uses Ser)

I am an engineer => Soy ingeniero (describing a profession which can be seen as a temporary state of affairs)

I can't think of a counterexample for "estar", but you are absolutely right about "ser". Off the top of my head: "soy rubio" (I'm blonde), "soy joven" (I'm young), "soy ciudadano Español" (I'm a Spanish citizen).

My favorite quirk is "estoy muerto" (I'm dead), which leads to plenty of metaphysical discussions.

I still remember the mnemonic my 9th grade Spanish teacher gave for this: DONT BE LOCO DONT: Ser is for Description, Origin, Nationality, and Time. BE: these verbs mean "to be" LOCO: Estar is for Location and Condition.

Determining whether a sentence describes the subject or describes the subject's condition is the trickiest part.

Good point, I never thought about those. Still, I'd personally say these are the quirks rather than the entire premise of permanent vs temporary. This is from the perspective of a native speaker though, I don't know anything about linguistics.

My favorite is that it's ingrained in the language that living is temporary:

"I am alive" uses "estar" -> "Estoy vivo."

But "I am dead" also uses "estar" -> "Estoy muerto."

AFAIK, when most people die, they are dead forever.

Because temporary vs permanent is not the correct categorizations of estar and ser. It's more like state vs characteristic. State and characteristic is still a fuzzy boundary, but hey it's a human language.

English uses "to be" even further where other languages like Spanish would use another verb—for example statements about the weather are "it is hot" rather than Spanish's "hace calor".

I hadn't really thought about that, but yes of course. E.g. French "il fait beau", "elle a quarate ans" etc. Making and having, rather than being.

I have read that the use of the “meaningless it” with an impersonal verb like this in English is due to an influence from the Celtic languages that were extant across Britain prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

I love this about spanish. Took me forever to initially get it, and then I've never gone back. It helps identify permanence in a very useful way.

Yes, this and the very common use of passive voice (at least in LATAM): El vaso se rompió vs Rompí el vaso.

Native Spanish speaker here: it was very interesting to me to read this way of explaining the difference. I always thought about it as ”ser" for essence and "estar" for state, but reading the comments below made me realise this isn't fully accurate either, but I'd still argue it's closer.

French has something a bit like that: we don't say "I'm hungry" but "I have hunger", or "I'm scared" but "I have fear". I'm not sure if there's a rule on when to use which though.

I recall an incident while I studied Spanish. An older woman in my class was nearly in tears of frustration as she angrily demanded of our teacher why they use "estar" to denote locations. For example "París está en Francia". Given the naive classification of estar as temporary it seems counter-intuitive to suggest Paris is temporarily in France.

There are a few other ambiguous ser/estar situations we were taught, exceptions to the permanent/temporary distinction that I can't recall. But the near break-down this woman had about Paris was quite memorable.

It's made sense to me that "estar" is used as a means to "localize" the subject to a particular space/time. Thus the non-permanence (i.e. "non-global") meaning of the word.

It reminds me of the Polish phrasing "masz racje", literally "you have right", as compared to the English "you are right".

On the other hand, 'you have right' translated literally to polish is 'masz prawo' which is exactly what 'you have right' means. I think 'masz racje' -> 'you have correct' -> 'you are correct' would be a better way to show the difference.

And the longer I think about the word 'racja' the less I'm confident I'm able to explain precisely what it means using english.

I guess that's part of the fun of learning other languages, I will never understand articles in english and I made peace with it. Now I'm also learning spanish and subjuntivos drives me nuts but spanish and polish grammar are surprisingly similar (waaay closer than both are to english)

To me 'masz racje' is somewhat between 'you are correct' and 'makes sense'

The Spanish version, literally translated, is "you have reason" :)

From the Wikipedia article:

"These authors observed that a communication under the copula ban can remain extremely unclear and imply prejudice, while losing important speech patterns, such as identities and identification . . .Bourland sees specifically the "identity" and "predication" functions as pernicious, but advocates eliminating all forms for the sake of simplicity. In the case of the "existence" form (and less idiomatically, the "location" form), one might (for example) simply substitute the verb 'exists' "

From the Appendix of 1984:

"So did the fact of having very few words to choose from. Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. . . Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment."

My experience with E-Prime began with a challenge predicated on the idea that the copula stands in for far too many verbs, and that by limiting the use of one verb, the heterogeneity of the remainder increases. Viewed in that context, I think E-Prime provides some benefit.

It does sometimes lead to belabored wording, and demands more careful consideration during composition. However, when regarded as a tool for encourage more thoughtful word choice, and in contrast to the explicitly stated goals of "Newspeak", the use of E-Prime increases the 'area of choice' and broadens the spectrum of vocabulary used in practice, if not in theory.

Using an emotion wheel [0] can also help clarify a sentence using fewer words. I could never imagine someone suggesting reducing the use of words in the inner circles as promoting Newspeak.

[0]: https://flowingdata.com/2020/03/20/wheel-of-emotional-words/

Nice work avoiding the copula there :)

I don't think this is that bad. There is nothing like consistent effort to simplify, at least I don't see any :) I don't get this language preservation at any cost sentiment. IMO, there are always features in a language which are unnecessary complex, hard to learn and doesn't at all add up to its expressive power.

I've heard that when Marc Okrand invented the Klingon language, he deliberately omitted the verb "to be".

So of course for Star Trek VI, they asked him to translate "To be or not to be".

Chancellor Gorkon: You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

General Chang: "taH pagh, taH be?"

Reference: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102975/trivia?item=tr1350638

From the link it sounds like Okrand basically wanted Klingon to use stative verbs with no copula. Actually, many languages function that way, i.e. Mandarin. As an aside, while Hebrew has "to be", it does not have a present tense.

I like how the Wikipedia article about English Prime also _uses_ English Prime for the most part in its prose - not sure if the contributors or editors did that intentionally.

I have just realized the magnitude of my dependence on the copula.

I seem to think using links of equivalence between ideas, yet often these links contain unvoiced and thus hidden ambiguity.

Even if you don't consistently write E-prime, that observation often improves your writing. Occasionally every E-prime construction feels forced and you might as well just stick "to be" in there, but I find that re-writing often makes my prose more interesting and clear.

I thought it was going to be like Russian, where the "to be" verb is almost always just omitted. That would probably work in English as well, though in Russian, they also use noun cases to help with making the sentences meaningful.

For E-prime-prime we should also skip articles like a/an/the and also to-infinitive before verbs. This, in my opinion, best language.

As a reader of undergraduate papers, I'm all for exercises like this, if only to push them to try harder, and unmuddy their thinking. But as some kind of political consciousness programme? lol. no.

What about "to be" shows thinking that needs unmuddying? Why should we consider sentences like "the cat is an animal" or "the cat is furry" problematic?

Nothing, unless someone disagrees; once someone argues that the cat isn't furry, stop using 'is' and it will be clearer what you really disagree about.

Consider a more realistic example, e.g. "Russia is a dictatorship" vs "No it isn't". What are these people arguing about? A fact (they disagree over which things Russia has done), an opinion (they agree on what Russia has done but disagree on whether those things were bad), semantics (they agree on what Russia did and how bad it was, but disagree on whether that meets the criteria of a dictatorship), or something else? Using e-prime isn't a panacea against this sort of confusion, but it is almost always helpful.

Interesting, thanks. It's true that "hot takes" of the form "X is Y" become a bit more difficult without the copula. Not sure how much we win by saying "A dictator rules Russia" vs. "Russia is ruled by a dictator", but I can see how just the fact of having to think more carefully about the formulation can contribute to a more reasoned discussion. It's a pity that the Wikipedia article fails to explain this point.

I have two, somewhat contradictory, responses. The first is that it is not "to be" that is the issue, it is that students very often do not articulate themselves very well, and one way to encourage them to be more precise is to take away their linguistic crutches. If you can get them to ask to themselves, "how can I say this another way?", then you've already gone a long way to improving their writing, and by extension, their thinking.

My second answer is ontological. The "is a" relationship is much more useful in mathematics and computer science than it turns out to be in the empirical, social and psychological sciences, where even the ontological categories that one discusses may be disputed. Instead of saying, "a cat is a mammal", it seems much more useful to talk about statistical distributions of traits shared by or not shared by cats and other mammals. And then, very often, our categories can obscure truths, e.g. the truth that biological sex is more complicated, multidimensional and continuous, that the binary categories "is a" encourages us to use. Historically, much of science begins by creating ontologies; basic questions are "what kinds of things are they?"; but at some point they can also become crutches. I think we see this in modern evolutionary biology quite clearly, with a move toward "population thinking" rather than categorical ontologies.

My 9th grade English teacher required all work to be done in this style. I can't say that I enjoyed it but in retrospect I probably benefitted from the experience.

First time that I've heard of this. I love this kind of writing hack - I used the Hemingway app for years when writing an opinion column to keep my sentences short, and my readers seemed to appreciate it.

Of course, the art lies in knowing when to break the rules for maximum effect. That's always fun :)

The Russian language does not have the present tense of "to be", i.e. "is", "am", or "are". It is simply omitted, which can be confusing at first for some learners (like myself). The infinitive "to be" exists though.

I have an infant child and I've discovered that I developed a, for lack of a better word, verbal tick when referring to her:

It doesn't translate to English well, but instead of asking e.g. "are you eating?" or "is she eating" I say "is it eaten?"(note the lack of the word "being" - I'm not asking here if she is currently being devoured).

It's a lot like "it is known" in Game of Thrones.

I wonder if the origins of E-Prime were in any way similar.

This seems like a good psychological strategy to rehabilitate self centered people.

If one's objective were to unmoor the perspective of the speaker from shared truth and their sense of identity, this seems like the tool. I think they used to call it "brainwashing." I'm still trying to source it, but I remember knowing some people who went on these language trips that were very political and there was a trend in leaning Spanish that was a vehicle for social justice groups. They were all a bit wooly.

It seemed to be an example of something like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism

I think you're more likely to get agreement about reality using e-prime. It's primary purpose is to prevent arguments over what something 'is', and replace them with shared observations of what we perceive. Instead of saying the ball is blue, you say, the ball looks blue to me. Or instead of saying light is a wave, you say light behaves like a wave when sent through a double slit, etc. If anything, it accentuates the subjective nature of our experience, and grants validity to people's sense of identity (because that's obviously their subjective experience).

My experience using e-prime with fellow non-experts suggests otherwise. The increased precision bifurcates perspectives, interpretations and nuances. Agreements take longer to reach, but everyone feels smarter during the process.

I think mastery takes ages. I also think all the “beginner” texts, the ones you can find online or in books quickly, overemphasise the precision and analytic benefits. I got much more from it once I started using it in a more poetic mode. It draws “scientific” communication out into myriad detail; it contracts poetry and prose with punch.

> I think you're more likely to get agreement about reality using e-prime

I don’t think removing the ability to discuss easily discuss even tentative conclusions of objective reality facilitates agreement about it.

> Instead of saying the ball is blue, you say, the ball looks blue to me.

Yes, and there is a very good reason English supports both types of claims, which mean substantially different things.

> Yes, and there is a very good reason English supports both types of claims, which mean substantially different things.

Right, and one of them isn't literally true, hence the point of all this. If the ball looks blue to you, it will look red to someone moving away from it rapidly, for example.

Any change in language could be a tool in constructing a group identity or brainwashing. Learning Spanish, avoiding swearing, using old-timey accents, etc. What on earth makes you think this particular one is?

To be, or not to be?

Surprisingly, that requires only minor changes to render it into E-prime, because old Will carefully chose his words to say what he meant clearly instead of falling back on the vague and fuzzy "be". This version suffers metrically, I think:

To exist, or not to exist: that question burns:

Whether a nobler mind would suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or would take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh inherits, the best devoutly wish for

This consummation. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: but that prospect brings terror,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover'd country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Yields its place to the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

They will remember all my sins.

“Hope exists as the thing with feathers,” just doesn’t have as nice a ring to it though.

Well now write that with E-Prime

Should I stay or should I go now?


To exist, or not to exist?

Or perhaps:

To continue to exist, or to cease to exist?

Or, if you want to make a phone call in one of Vonnegut's stories:

2 B R 0 2 B

To or not to

2 || !2


  Welcome to Node.js v16.0.0.
  > 2 || !2

True or not True

I read about E-prime in my late teens, and while I don't actually use it in everyday language, thinking about the implications has deeply changed the way I think about things.

The basic idea for me is that all instances of 'is' are technically false statements[0]. "That chair is red" is false, not just in the boring sense that the chair probably has some non-red bits, but more fundamentally in the sense that redness is a result of you looking at it, not an intrinsic quality of the chair.

The E-prime version of that would be, "That chair looks red to me." A pedantic and unimportant difference in that example, but consider the difference between 'Bob is dishonest' and 'Bob lied to me.' The latter may or may not be true, but it is clearly a subjective observation and can be argued with on those terms. The former phrasing, taken literally, implies the existence of a hypothetical quality called 'honesty' and asserts that Bob doesn't have it, which is both literally false (because there is no such quality, at least not that we can measure) and less useful (because we assume the speaker has some reason to think Bob is dishonest, but don't know what it is).

The point is that it's a bug of our language (inherited from Aristotle, according to Korzybski) that we commonly phrase opinions as if they were facts, and that we describe things by assigning them imaginary intrinsic qualities and then talking about them as if they were observable. Once this meme infects you, you see it everywhere. The chair 'is' red, Bob 'is' dishonest, [politician] 'is' crazy, a photon 'is' a wave. In every case, rephrasing those in e-prime would be clearer and more accurate.

Some might still say this is just semantic nitpicking. In some contexts, sure. But I've found it to be very helpful, mostly in sciences but also in philosophy, art, and life generally. And it is particularly relevant to internet arguing. Not in the sense that you get to say, "Hah, you used 'is' so you're wrong!" but in the sense that you can more easily see when someone has said something you disagree with, but can't argue against because it is not arguable. Consider e.g. "vim is better than emacs". There's no point in debating that until you find out why they think that. That may seem obvious in the abstract, but in practice I find that most people would rather just guess, as in "I'll bet he means X, so I will now write 8 paragraphs angrily explaining why that's not true..." than ask.

0: "You just said is!" I hear you cry. Okay you got me. More precisely, it's all instances of the 'is of identity', as distinct from uses like "That is what I said" or "What is your drink preference." What E-prime tries to avoid is not specific words, it's phrasing a subjective statement about an observation in the form of an objective statement about an intrinsic quality of a thing.

I remember seeing ads for this in Popular Science or something when I was a kid. I thought it would be fun to try.

Is it a coincidence that the lyrics to Beck's song "E-Pro" are in E-Prime, except for the bridge?

"Or not." --Hamlet

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