03 March 2013

Professional Tips: To Be or Not

G. Perec: A Void
Dale Andrews' recent article on Constrained Writing sent me on tangential research of the topic. My peripatetic perambulations landed me on a page about É, E′, or English′, also called E-Prime. Curious, I perused Elaine Johnson's article and expanded my research to others.

Proponents of constrained writing argue it improves one's writing. In the long term I agree, but readers must note a huge caveat: An audience should view lipograms and other forms of constrained writing as exercises. Such exercises ought to improve writing that follows, because history will remember few examples of non-poetic constrained writing as masterpieces, Gravity's Rainbow notwithstanding. But, gather 'round, lads and lassies, and hear me out.

Thé Primé of Miss Jéan Brodié

É, a kind of constrained writing, proposes immediate improvement, which other subsets of constrained writing cannot offer. E-Prime adherents wish to restrict, even remove forms of 'to be' from general usage. That is to say, the impetus of É is to shun sentences exactly like this one. In other words, E-Primers avoid the use of is, was, be, been, am, are, etc. Most further advocate avoiding contractions of these forms: I'm, you're, he's… some that are ambiguous in tense. (Does you're imply 'you are' or 'you were'? Does he's imply 'he is' or 'he was'?)

That struck me as a similar goal of professional writers, to use active voice and action verbs wherever possible. Could we improve our writing by listening to academics, forming a discipline of Not to Be??

Ésay Comé, Ésay Go

At first blush, the professors' results didn't appear promising. I persisted, reading Korzybski and Kellogg and Kenyon, yet 8 out of 10 papers came off as linguistically technical or the writing gagged the reader with run-on verbosity and excessively dense pluperfection. Still, I thought the idea merited further attention.

I like to think I'd already progressed well in weaning myself off the teat of 'isism' but in fact, is, was, and their weakish siblings prove addictive. You may notice that other than the deliberate sentence in the second paragraph, I'm trying to avoid 'be' words, but does the pluperfect "I'm" in this sentence violate the letter of the É law? I still don't know.
Spiderman 3
© Marvel, Stan Lee

Écad, Égad

David Bourland argues that changing our language can change our thinking. This sounds like a corollary of one of the sayings from my father: "If you can control the language of people, you can control people." I don't recall whether he was referring to Fox News at the time, but he often made non-intuitive statements that would later prove accurate. Bourland goes on to make the case for É.

Éfficient, Élegant, Égalitarian

In particular, most advocates of É point out it virtually eliminates passive voice. They maintain É forces a writer to take responsibility for not only one's own actions, but the actions of others– characters in the case of novelists. Saying "John was hit by a baseball" doesn't suffice. An É author must state who hit John with a baseball.

Robert Anton Wilson
suggests the word 'is' makes it easy for politicians and advertisers to toy with the public through misleading prose:
  • "Guinness is good for you." In what way?
  • "A diamond is forever." Forever what?
  • "Coke is it." Huh?
Ken Starr's grilling of Bill Clinton contained many embarrassing moments on both sides, but I remember one particular huh moment from the President: "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is." Had the parties studied É, they could have avoided that episode– or not.

Ralph E. Kenyon Jr. goes on to discuss 'cheating' (my term, not his). By example, he says the sentence "I found the movie more rewarding than the novel" is an abuse of É using simple substitution: "I found the movie (to be) more rewarding than (I found) the novel (to be)." He suggests "I liked the movie better than I liked the novel." Mmm… I half agree.

Émerging, Énlivening

Many of the É proponents throw themselves wholehearted into using É in their daily work. Fine, but some seem to forget active voice and action verbs form only a part of good writing. And, like religion and politics, absolutes can prove undesirable. Sometimes we want to use passive voice. In rare instances, 'is' or 'was' might be the perfect word.

But overall, if we treat E-prime as an exercise, we can learn something from these linguistic professionals. Don't get bogged down by their graphs, trees, or the dense and dormant prose: simply word sentences to avoid forms of 'to be'. One writer says he 'E-prunes' in moderation, rather than E-primes.

Looking back, I'm amazed how many examples of is, was, were, etc crept into writing this article. Knowing I should attempt to set an example, I've edited most of the offending sentences. You don't have the privilege (or burden) of seeing the original, but yes, reworking those sentences helped.

Try it with your work and let us know your results.

Thé Énd


  1. Leigh, although I've already written and scheduled my post for tomorrow, "To Be or Not" just gave me my next topic for March 18, 2013.

  2. Talk about a small world! Leigh, you're not gonna believe this: Elaine Johnson is my best friend from junior high (Class of '57) and is coming from California to New York to visit us in exactly two weeks.

  3. Really, Elizabeth? Of all the articles I read (or stabbed at), I found hers easily the most approachable and most agreeable. Dare I say you influenced each other?

    Fran, I'm pleased whenever I help plant a seed or in this case help cultivate a seed that others have cultivated, too. I'm always please to see your comment first thing.

  4. The academics might be technically correct, but if e-prime is used inflexibly, it could come off as stilted and unnatural. Like, well, Data in Star Trek Next Generation.

  5. Leigh, you touched a button here. In self-editing my short stories, I do attempt to e-prune my writing in order to replace "to-be's" with action verbs. Doesn't always work, but I make a conscious effort.

  6. RT, I do the same as you, although this prompts me to pay closer attention and work harder at it.

    Anon, that's true… anything taken to excess can be harmful. I'm reminded me of the KJV 23rd Psalm which is widely regarded as exquisite poetry. Computer style checkers give it low ratings because the psalm doesn't adhere to the rules, and wisely so.

  7. Interesting post and comments. They illustrate again that it is not always about adhering to rules but about knowing them when you choose not to adhere. This may prompt yet another followup post from me several weeks down the line!

  8. Read your post early this morning and spent rest of the day trying to think how to write a comment while abiding by the linguist constrains and also what key words to use in this comment. I came up with nothing.

    I agree with Dale, it’s about knowing when and when not to violate the rules.

  9. Louis, even your 'nothings' are something!

    Dale, I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  10. A masterpiece, Leigh!

    I'm reminded of my favorite English teacher in High School, who used to opine in a sepulcher tone: “The verb to be is deadly, deadly dull. DEADLY dull!”

  11. The most thorough fictional treatment of the idea that language shapes culture is undoubtedly Jack Vance's SF novel The Languages of Pao, wherein the dictator of a culturally backward planet imposes technical, martial, and commercial languages on the industry, military, and traders. Try expressing that without an "is", or some usage like "represents" to mean "is a member of the class".


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