Let me be: E-Prime

I find writing difficult, and writing in E-Prime even more difficult. As this entry in Wikipedia explains, E-Prime removes from the English language with all forms of the verb “to be.” David Bourland Jr. proposed E-Prime as a way of realizing Alfred Korzybski’s concern over two forms of the verb “to be” relating to identity (I am an economist) and predication (My writing is poor.) You can read more about the semantics behind all this here.

I don’t, and won’t, advocate taking up the torch and becoming a writer of E-Prime—I’ve tried too many times and failed. But thinking about E-Prime has made me a better writer because I use the passive voice less often, and I reflect before making definitive, absolutist statements.

For example, academic writing encourages both definitive statements, and the passive voice. Consider a pretty standard sentence written in science-speak: “A two-tailed t-test of the hypothesis was performed, and it was concluded that there is no difference in population means.” It seems factual and accurate, and very objective. But the test did not perform itself, some body performed the test. Any reader will instantly assume, correctly, that the author of the paper conducted the test, so no explicit statement seems necessary. The sentence “Based on the results of a two-tailed t-test of Hypothesis A, I conclude that the two population means do not differ significantly,” reads better, and contains the same descriptive and factual information.

E-Prime can also make you think twice when you make gross definitive statements such as “you are an idiot.” Upon reflection, you probably really meant to say: “Stop behaving like an idiot,” or “Stop saying stupid things.” But sometimes, you just want to tell people they are stupid…