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English-Prime - English without "is" (wikipedia.org)
108 points by silentbicycle on Jan 5, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 76 comments

One of my school's founders gave an essay-writing workshop when we applied to colleges, and told me about this when critiquing my essay.

IMHO, you should think of it as a good exercise instead of a writing style. You don't need to eliminate all forms of "to be" in your writing. However, thinking about how you would do so forces you to choose your words more carefully. You can add "to be" back in later once you've mastered E-prime.

You may want to try the same thing with adverbs and prepositional phrases. Eliminate them, and see how it affects your writing. Then reintroduce them only if they make your writing more clear.

In programming, you can perform similar exercises with mutation. Eliminate all assignment statements, and see how you structure your code in their absence. Then add them back as necessary.

> Eliminate all assignment statements, and see how you structure your code in their absence. Then add them back as necessary.

Actually, I think removing points is the typical exercise. Removing assignment is too easy :)


Everybody has to start somewhere. Not everyone programs in Haskell. ;-)

Which, in a roundabout way, ends up looking curiously similar to Forth... :)

Agreed. Recursion and first-class functions are something that most CS students know way too little about.

You can also remove (explicit) recursion --- which almost the same as removing points in practise.

Not quite. The Y combinator does real work. Its not just an extra point attached at the end. Furthermore, getting rid of implicit recursion does not make one a better programmer (imho).

But it makes your programs easier to read in many cases. Abstracting the control flow with combinators like filter, map and other folds also tends to make my programs less error prone.

Why should the Y combinator be a point attached at the end? Do we talk about the same 'pointfree programming'?

I see what you did there. :)

> You can add "to be" back in later once you've mastered E-prime.

Like mastering LISP and going back to Visual Basic.

You're implying that Lisp is a subset of VB; do you really want to stand by that statement?

master append before going back to nconc

Quoth the Wiki (quite accurately tagged [citation needed]): Using E-Prime makes it harder for a writer or reader to confuse statements of opinion with statements of fact.

The above statement is an opinion dressed up as a fact which is nonetheless compatible with E-Prime. (Do you need a [citation needed] to mark self-negating statements?) Anyone with a high school command of the English language can conjure up their own alternatives. Here are three examples. Oops, scratch that: I present three examples below.

* E-prime renders me incapable of expressing a value judgment as a statement of fact, proving my superiority over you ignorant savages still using standard English.

* Anyone who cannot write a statement of fact in e-prime lacks sufficient proficiency in English to find their way out of a paper bag.

* Some people believe that e-prime decreases conflict, but I prefer the traditional route: wholesale slaughter of those who disagree with me. Why? Because one does not need "to be" to bathe in the blood of English professors who (pre-humously) possessed far too much free time.

All three of the above statements describe facts. Incorrect facts, but a fact does not become an opinion simply because of its wrongness.

* A single instance of a value judgment expressed as a statement of fact in E-prime falsifies this.

* The existence of one person who cannot write a statement of fact in E-prime yet can find their way out of a paper bag falsifies this.

* This presents 2 facts and an opinion. "Some people believe that e-prime decreases conflict": fact, find one. "I prefer the traditional route: wholesale slaughter of those who disagree with me": opinion, unverifiable. "Because one does not need 'to be' to bathe in the blood of English professors...": fact, simply bathe in their blood without uttering "to be".

The original Wikipedia comment presents an opinion, because it does not define an objective standard for what "harder" means. Hence the [citation needed] tag. If phrased as "10% fewer college students confused fact with opinion when using E-prime", that would present a fact.

Also note the wiggle word "makes" in the Wikipedia quote. While not forbidden by E-prime, wiggle words like "makes", "becomes", and "does" often let you express the same sort of sloppy thinking.

So what, for you, distinguishes "opinions" from "facts"? Can you give some examples of opinion-easily-mistaken-for-fact in ordinary English and explain what makes them harder to express in E-prime than other sentences of ordinary English? (Or, if you think that misses the point, what makes their E-prime equivalents less likely to spring to the mind of someone writing in E-prime?)

People often express aesthetic judgements as factual statements, and perhaps they shouldn't; so let's take some examples and see how they go into E-prime.

"Bach is the greatest composer who ever lived" means much the same as "No other composer wrote such great music as Bach did". That didn't feel at all difficult, and the E-prime version contains just as much opinion, which looks just as much like fact, as the E-notprime version.

"The Mona Lisa is overrated" means much the same as "Most people rate the Mona Lisa's merits more highly than it really deserves". Again, expressing that sentiment in E-prime gives no difficulty, and the E-prime version has the same problems as the E-notprime version while using more words.

Perhaps we should look at politics rather than the arts?

"The Republicans are concerned only to feather their own and their benefactors' nests": this one requires scarcely any change, and I might very easily have happened to express it in E-prime without trying. "The Republicans want to feather their own and their benefactors' nests, and don't care about anything else."

"Barack Obama is a charlatan whose only real skill is persuasive oratory." Well, "is a charlatan" doesn't go easily into E-prime, but one can say "Barack Obama's success in politics results entirely from his persuasive oratory, despite the false impression to the contrary that he is careful to give", and as usual the translation gives little trouble and preserves the undesirable features of the original.

So, I dunno, but it doesn't seem to me as if writing in E-prime makes it easier for opinions to look like facts. Would you care to enlighten me?

Remark: all of the above (apart from examples in quotation marks) is in E-prime, unless I goofed, and by far the most difficult thing to say without the copula was the first sentence of the second paragraph; and in fact "perhaps they shouldn't" (which I would in fact regard as opinion-easily-mistaken-for-fact) was the best I could do to replace things like "arguably aesthetic judgements are matters of opinion rather than fact". This may of course just indicate that I'm not good at writing in E-prime, but I do find it interesting that the main effect of doing so was to introduce an opinion-as-fact problem.

> "The Mona Lisa is overrated" means much the same as "Most people rate the Mona Lisa's merits more highly than it really deserves".

The former sentence implies the existence of an essential characteristic of being overrated, while the latter makes an observation, possibly incorrect. I think facts vs. opinions isn't so much the relevant distinction here as things being as they are because of Aristotelian essences vs. happening because of action (in this case, judgement).

With the Barack Obama example, the is-ness crept back in with "false impression" ("the impression is false"); rewriting English the whole way down seems excessively cumbersome to me, of course, but I've found doing it as an exercise to helps me recognize when ideas are reified largely due to language quirks.

I think the dubious assumptions in the two versions of the Mona Lisa one are equivalent; what's implied by "being overrated" is the same as what's implied by "really deserves".

If you think "false impression" is bad because "the impression is false" has a copula in it, then congratulations: you just abolished adjectives. "... the red bicycle ..." -> "the bicycle is red". Whatever the problem is here, it isn't is-ness.

I completely agree that rewriting what you say in a restricted subset of English (or whatever natural language) has value for seeing what assumptions are slipping in unobserved. It's totally not clear to me that "is"-less English is any better for this purpose than, say, adverb-less English or e-less English; I suspect that most of the gain comes from forcing yourself to write with a strong constraint, which makes you think more. It's not so very different from (one reason) why poetic and musical forms (sonnets, sonata form, haiku, fugue, ...) work well.

I wouldn't be surprised if forbidding "is" were a bit better than those, for various reasons. But I suspect that the bulk of the winnage comes from the mere fact of being constrained.

> "... writing with a strong constraint, which makes you think more."

I agree. E-Prime was inspired by General Semantics ( see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Semantics , the "Overview" section on that page seems sufficient), though, and had a much more specific motive than just improving writing. While E-Prime can focus too much on just "is", I think it seems like an approachable introduction to the ideas.

I also thought they might be of interest here, because there's a neat parallel between them and e.g. thinking about is-a/has-a in OO design, the ways having quote empowers Lisp, etc.

Bob is a killer. vs. Bob shot Sam.

Separating what is happening from what why it happened is why mystery's work. Using "is" allows writers to easily classify things, where showing what is happening is far more interesting.

The more you need to think about what your writing the better. vs. I find it increases clarity when I carefully examine my words before writing them down.

Bob killed.

killed has a conotation, but it's still something he did not something he is.

Bob killed, in self defense. vs Bob killed, ted as part of a murderous rampage. Or even.

Bob stood hatchet in hand over the chicken and hesitated.

Bob Killed.

Where Bob is a killer becomes harder to place into an interesting story.

Ah. Then to fit in E-Prime, I believe you'd have to state what Bob was doing as a killer.

The killer Bob <verb:[lived sat stood munched ...]>.


The killer Bob __ is far more interesting as a witting style than Bob is a killer who _

I consider a fact to be something that is verifiable or falsifiable by an outside party. If you can run an experiment or collect data to establish the truth of a statement, it's a fact. If you're left with "Well, how would you prove that?" or "That's not what I really meant", it's an opinion.

I did say that the Wikipedia statement was an opinion, but I'll take a stab at each of your examples:

"Bach is the greatest composer who ever lived" leaves open the question of what it means to be the "greatest composer". "No other composer wrote such great music as Bach did" at least defines what it means to be the greatest composer: there does not exist a composer who wrote such great music as Bach. It's still an open question what "great music" is, which is why this is still an opinion. But it's moved us closer to having a verifiable statement that we can test.

"The Mona Lisa is overrated" has a bunch of open questions: who overrates it, what should its rating be, how do you rate artwork, etc. "Most people rate the Mona Lisa's merits more highly than it really deserves" closes the first question ("most people" = take a poll) and makes the second two questions explicit ("Mona Lisa's merits" - like what? "than it really deserves" - well, what does it really deserve?) Still an opinion, but at least we have leads as to how to make it a fact.

"The Republicans want to feather their own and their benefactors' nests, and don't care about anything else." Here, the problem is that we're making a statement about someone's mental state, which is not verifiable unless you ask them and take their answers at face value. Both English and E-prime have this problem. BTW, if you accept their answers at face value and set some threshold for what percentage constitutes "The Republicans", this becomes a fact. Simply poll all Republicans and ask if they want to feather their own and their benefactor's nests. I doubt you'll get a truthful answer, but that's just my opinion. ;-)

"Barack Obama's success in politics results entirely from his persuasive oratory, despite the false impression to the contrary that he is careful to give" - that's exactly the sort of opinion -> fact transformation that E-prime encourages. "Barack Obama is a charlatan" is an opinion, because it doesn't define what a charlatan is. "Barack Obama's success in politics results entirely from his persuasive oratory" is falsifiable, almost: if he stops giving speeches and yet remains successful in politics, we know this statement is untrue. (There's still the open question of what it means to be successful in politics, though.) Unfortunately, I don't think we're allowed to run experiments on the president-elect's power base, so until we do, it might as well be an opinion. But we have at least pinned down a criteria for verification that we can use to determine the truth of the statement.

Something I noticed about all these examples - even if they're still opinions, the words they introduced raise questions about how to factually verify them. These are not wasted words: they indicate that there's a part of the argument that was omitted. It's like putting assertions in your code. They add needless verbosity and make your program crash, but that's the point - they alert you that you're not handling a case correctly.

On the remark: "perhaps they shouldn't" is obvious as opinion to me. "Should" is a red flag for opinions. "Arguably aesthetic judgements are matters of opinion rather than fact" is not, because it uses the word "are" to make a global judgement that can't be tested. I think that's the perfect example of E-prime clarifying an opinion-as-fact problem.

So, writing without "is" restricts what you can say, and it happens that some of the things you can't say in E-prime are (potentially, sometimes) harmful.

Similarly, if you never eat anything, you won't get fat.

I'm unconvinced by some of the ways in which you claim my E-prime translations of opinion statements are improvements. For instance, "is overrated" --> "blah blah more highly blah blah": I don't think the E-prime version is any more explicit about what the open questions are; it's just more verbose.

As I said elsewhere in this thread: in so far as writing in E-prime helps to clarify your thoughts, it's not specifically avoiding copulas that does it, it's writing under a severe restriction so that you keep having to rethink what you're saying and what it really means. Anything that repeatedly forces you to stop writing automatically and find a new way of expressing yourself will do that. (Therefore: I conjecture that experienced E-prime writers and speakers, if any there be, get less benefit from using E-prime than those of us who have to do it laboriously from first principles.) Writing in Shakespearean sonnets, or without the letter "e", would do about as well. And, at least in the latter case as in E-prime, it would do harm as well as good, both because it would slow you down and because some things might just turn out to be too difficult to say in the restricted language despite being worth saying.

E-prime renders me incapable of expressing a value judgment as a statement of fact, proving my superiority over you ignorant savages still using standard English.

This sentence has awesomeness.

Many languages get along just fine without that verb, such as my native language, Tamil. I learnt a tiny bit of Russian a long time ago, and -- someone correct me if I'm wrong -- I don't think Russian has it either. For instance, "what is your name?" is "kak vas zovut?" Also, Mandarin has shi which can be used in some senses of "to be" llsted in the article but not others; for instance, identity but not predication.

So I dug a little deeper and found this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_copula

"A feature common to all Indo-European languages is the presence of a verb corresponding to the English verb to be."

I'm a bit of a language nerd, so this is very interesting.

Russian doesn't have an expressed copula verb in the typical present indicative sentence that simply links a subject and a predicate. So the way I used to say "I'm an American" would be expressed in Russian (which also lacks indefinite articles) as if I said, "I American." But Russian does have a verb 'to be' and makes moderately heavy use of it in other tenses and moods.

> Many languages get along just fine without that verb, such as my native language, Tamil.

Ummm... in Tamil, "Movie was good" == "Padam nandraga irundhadhu". Irundhadhu is "was". AFAIK that is how people say it. It would be weird without "was".

While Turkish does have a form of "to be", it's not used the way you would expect. Many sentences that would otherwise use some conjugated form of "to be" in Turkish will simply do without a verb.

For example, introducing yourself you'd say "I'm Joe". In Turkish, this is "Benim Joe", where "Benim" is the first person singular pronoun with the first person possessive suffix. Many other sentences have no verb, which can make learning Turkish difficult.

I actually found learning Turkish quite pleasing. But perhaps I just love to learn strange (for me) things.

Actually, the Mandarin shi can also used for predication with the "noun shi adjective de" grammar pattern. For instance, you could say "ta shi hen gao de," for "he is very tall." This is grammatically correct, but then the sentence has a tone that is like passive voice in English. Thus, in most simple cases, like the above example, you would opt for the terser "ta hen gao" instead.

"For instance, you could say "ta shi hen gao de," for "he is very tall." This is grammatically correct, but then the sentence has a tone that is like passive voice in English."

I would interpret such a Mandarin sentence to come from a discourse context in which the person's height has already become a topic, as for example when the speaker is conceding to another speaker that the person is tall (but perhaps unskilled in basketball, nonetheless).

The normal way of expressing "he is tall," "the language learner is smart," etc., is to use what linguists often call "stative verbs" (English-speaking learners often call them "adjectives") without any use of "是 [be]."

My high school banned freshman and sophomores from using to-be verbs in their English essays for a lot of the reasons discussed in the article.

I soon learned to get around that without thinking hard. Instead of saying "Macbeth is malicious," I'd say "Macbeth has/holds a degree of malice," which just makes my essays more cumbersome to read. And thus, the intention fell flat on me.

When I became a junior and was allowed to use to-be verbs again, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from .

I don't think it works all that well in nonfiction. Too much nonfiction writing expresses equivalences between abstract concepts. Abstract concepts have trouble performing actions, because, well, they don't exist.

Fiction benefits greatly, though. Compare these paragraphs:

"Macbeth is malicious. He is staring straight at you. You are getting scared. You start walking away. Your footsteps are the only thing you can hear."

"Macbeth fixes you with a beady-eyed stare. Dark flickers of malice creep across his pupils, and the intensity of his gaze makes you take an involuntary step backwards. A shiver of fear runs down your back, skin crawling. You start tiptoeing backwards across the room, eager to put more distance between you and him, yet too scared to make a sudden move. Your tiny footfalls echo across the great hall, providing the only relief to the oppressive silence."

Yes, the second one uses more words, and yes, it describes more. That's the point. By eliminating "is", it forces you to think more carefully about what you want to say.

P.S. +1 for writing your comment in E-prime. ;-)

I honestly don't think that that second Macbeth paragraph is necessarily better than the first one. There's something to be said for succinctness/directness.

necessarily better

It all depends on the audience.

The first sentence is "better" for passing an exam the next day, but hardly enjoyable if one is to immerse themselves in a work of fiction.

The second sentence has a lot that could be cleaned up about it - it is overly wordy, a bit pretentious, and may not describe the right details. But if I saw the first paragraph in a published novel I was reading, I'd be very disappointed. It doesn't immerse you in the story at all.

Abstract concepts have trouble performing actions, because, well, they don't exist.

Exactly. But how many people have died because somebody truly believed their abstract concept literally existed?


"When I became a junior and was allowed"

This bit isn't E-prime.

One of my HS English teachers did too. It at least made me notice such sentences, which were often insipid.

My high school senior year English instructor required the same of all her students. No "to be" words in any assignments. I have to say, the lesson did improve my writing.

Passive sentences are enjoyable. People that dislike them are missing the point. Abstract thought is obscured by concrete detail.

Passive sentences don't have some sort of intrinsic enjoyability, you enjoy them. E-Prime makes that distinction clearer. That's what the wikipedia article tried to say as "Using E-Prime makes it harder for a writer or reader to confuse statements of opinion with statements of fact.": it makes opinions harder to pass off as a statement about an intrinsic essence. (Does such a thing even exist?)

Unnecessary passive is hard to parse.

Interesting. What's the difference between this syntax and merely eliminating passive voice?

"E-Prime, short for English-Prime, is a modified English syntax and vocabulary lacking all forms of the verb to be: be, is, am, are, was, were, been and being, and also their contractions. Sentences composed in E-Prime seldom contain the passive voice, which in turn may force the writer or speaker to think differently. By eliminating most uses of the passive voice, E-Prime compels the writer to explicitly acknowledge the agent of a sentence, possibly making the written text easier to read and understand."

"I am Sam" is active voice, and it's using the verb 'to be', because it uses 'am'. Eliminating the 'am' in this case would be pretty difficult, but another poster has reworked a line of Hamlet that uses "I am" and it's a pretty good example of using E-Prime for the sake of improving writing style.

"I was assaulted" is passive voice, also using the verb 'to be'. As you may notice, the passive voice uses 'to be' very often, so eliminating 'to be' would eliminate most cases of passive voice.

Languages like Russian and many others sort of do this: in present active indicative you do not use 'to be' unless you are emphasizing it, so "Sasha is a student" is literally "Sasha student". There is some linguistics term for it but it's escaping me at the moment.


I am chiefly concerned with the question of killing myself or not killing myself.

EDIT. Oops, 2nd try:

A concern has arisen in my consciousness regarding the question of killing myself or not killing myself.

...I'm trying to keep all the same implications that WS put into the phrase, to hell with scansion.

Nuh uh, you used "I am."


"I might or might not want to kill myself." (The indecisive emo teenager version.)

"Death and existence vex me." (The pompous philosopher version.)

"Life sucks / then you die / so fuck the world / and let's get high." (The goth poetry version.)

"OMGWTFBBQLOL." (The hyperactive netspeak version.)

"?" (The concise punctuation version.)

To exist, or not to exist? That question occupies my thoughts.

Existance, or oblivion? I ponder this.

Shakespeare's use of 'esse' in Hamlet is different from it's the use that is criticized by E-Prime I believe. It's worth noting that the Scholastics, influenced by Aristotle, enumerated and distinguished the different meanings of 'esse.' E-Prime seams to be more concerned with identity, Hamlet is concerned with existence.

I liked this article better than the one in Wikipedia:


If you've read The Watchmen, this is exactly how Rohrschach speaks throughout the entire(?) book. It makes him sound like he's a walking, talking news ticker or weather report.

How would you translate "I think, therefore I am"?

"I think, therefore I exist"?

That's how it's usually translated in Spanish.

Cogito, ergo sum. -> Pienso, luego existo.

That's interesting, because staying truer to the latin would result in "Pienso, luego soy"

Both translations from latin are indeed correct. But Descartes first used the french "Je pense, donc je suis" so yours is probably more correct.

There's also an interesting confusion in Spanish, where "luego" can be understood as either "therefore" or "after"/"next thing". I think it's the same ambivalence you'd have with "I think, then I exist."

I don't know whether the latin original had that ambiguity.

Perhaps something along the lines of "My consciousness proves my existence" or "My awareness precedes my existence", depending on the interpretation.

I find this example harder to swallow:

"The question of whether to exist or not to exist comes to mind."

Descartes meant the latter, correct?

The former sounds much nicer.

Both. In this context, 'to be' is used in the same sense as 'to exist.' I'm not sure how you could use a different sense of 'to be' without rendering the sentence incomprehensible.

I miss R.A.W.

Robert Anton Wilson disliked the verb:

I suppose Joyce made Bloom such a tangled genetic and cultural mixture to expose the absurdities of anti-semitism; but I also suspect that he wanted to undermine that neurolinguistic habit which postmodernists call "essentialism" and which Korzybski claimed invades our brains and causes hallucinations or delusions every time we use the word "is."


(Scroll down approximately 1/4 of the page for the entry titled "Schrödinger's Jew")

Before his death, Robert Anton Wilson taught several online courses at the Maybe Logic Academy (http://www.maybelogic.org), which he founded. A large component of these courses took place in online discussion forums, where RAW encouraged the participants to use e-prime for all discussion.

At least one of the courses also included readings from Alfred Korzybski and the General Semanticists, who played a large role in formulating the concept and practice of e-prime.

Korzybski wrote a fascinating book called Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. In this work, Korzybski postulates that the multi-millennium-old Aristotelian system of thinking contributes a form of "essentialism" to the underlying metaphysical assumptions of the Western linguistic and philosophic traditions ("things" having "is-ness").

Korzybski argues that these metaphysical assumptions appear "false-to-facts" with modern scientific understanding (i.e. an operational accounting inspired by biological and physical systems thinking). These assumptions introduce flawed and delusional reasoning when projected on to a linguistic domain, and their operation on a human social system over time results in the emergence of pathological behaviors in individuals' interactions.

Korzybski and others concluded that a step towards a more-sane system of thinking might result in part from making explicit the flawed metaphysical assumptions implicitly derived from Arestotelianism, and eleminating their behavioral manifestation in speech (i.e. as forms of the verb "to be").

Science and Sanity can be previewed online at Google Books:


Incidentally, the same RAW course which took readings from Korzybski also included James Joyce's Ulyesses as a primary text.

Seriously Robert Anton Wilson's books changed the way I look at the world. I started with "Prometheus Rising" and followed that with "Quantum Psychology." Honestly the two best books I've ever read (Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is close).

Same here. I'm not sure how much exposure the community here has to those ideas...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say not enough.

In my opinion, E-Prime appears good for two things: dehumanizing English, and making it hard to say really stupid things!

He and I share salient properties, as you and he share salient properties, as you and me share salient properties, and we form a cohesive unit. See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly. I cry.

E-Prime lacks metaphors, and robs fuzzy language of all its indeterminate power.

I would love to force writers of academic papers to use this style. I believe that the formal academic style removes the voice of the author from a work is dishonest. I'd much rather see "I think X because..." than "X is because...".

Does anyone know how to express progressive aspects in E-Prime?


This would do violence to Hamlet's soliloquy in Shakespeare's play.

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