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.

Some regard E-Prime as a variant of the English language, while others consider it a mental discipline to filter their own speech and translate the speech of others. For example, the sentence "the movie was good" can become "I liked the movie" using the rules of E-Prime, which communicates the subjective nature of the speaker's experience rather than directly imparting a quality to the movie. Using E-Prime makes it harder for a writer or reader to confuse statements of opinion with statements of fact. According the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs, "Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing." [http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol41/no3/p26.htm]


D. David Bourland, Jr. (1928-2000) proposed E-Prime as an addition to Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, some years after Korzybski's death in 1950. Bourland, who studied under Korzybski, coined the term in a 1965 essay entitled "A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime" (originally published in the "General Semantics Bulletin"). It quickly gained controversy within general semantics, partly because sometimes practitioners of General Semantics saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages.

He collected and published three volumes of essays in support of his innovation. The first bore the title: "To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology" : 1991, San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics, edited by D. David Bourland, Jr. and Paul Dennithorne Johnston. For the second, "More E-Prime: To Be or Not II": 1994, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics, he added a third editor, Jeremy Klein.

Bourland and Johnston edited a third book "E-Prime III: a third anthology": 1997, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.

Korzybski (1879-1950) had decided that two forms of the verb 'to be'—the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of predication—had structural problems. For example, the sentence "The coat is red" has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain.

Korzybski pointed out the circularity of many dictionary definitions, and suggested adoption of the convention, then recently introduced among mathematicians, of acknowledging some minimal ensemble of terms as necessarily 'undefined'; he chose 'structure', 'order', and 'relation'. He wrote of those that they do not lend themselves to explication in words, but only by exhibiting how to use them in sentences.

Korzybski advocated raising one's awareness of structural issues generally through training in general semantics.

Different functions of 'to be'

In the English language, the verb 'to be' has several distinct functions:

* Identity, of the form "noun" "copula" "noun" " [The cat is an animal] "
* Predication, of the form "noun" "copula" "adjective" " [The cat is furry] "
* Auxiliary, of the form "noun" "copula" "verb" " [The cat is sleeping] "; " [The cat is bitten by the dog] "
* Existence, of the form "copula" "noun" " [There is a cat] "
* Location, of the form "noun" "copula" "place" " [The cat is on the mat] "

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 can simply substitute the verb "exists". Other copula in English include "taste", "feel", "smell", "sound", "grow", "remain", "stay", and "turn", among others, which a writer of E-prime might use instead of "to be".


E-Prime forces a writer to choose verbs and meanings carefully: the elimination of "to be" implicitly eliminates the passive voice and progressive aspect. Some defective verbs, such as "can", use paraphrases involving "to be" in some tenses and moods. This constraint alone accounts for much of the appeal of E-Prime to some of its advocates, since many stylists argue that such constructions occur too frequently in sloppy English writing. Of course it may also generate difficulties for some writers as they learn to use E-Prime.

Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility for misunderstanding and for conflict. [ [http://www.esgs.org/uk/art/epr1.htm Bourland's article on fundamentals] ] Note that some languages already treat equivalents of the verb "to be" very differently without giving any obvious advantages to their speakers. For instance, Arabic, like Russian, already lacks a verb form of "to be" in the present tense. If one wanted to assert, in Arabic, that an apple looks red, one would not literally say "the apple is red", but "the apple red". In other words, speakers can communicate the verb form of "to be", with its semantic advantages and disadvantages, even without the existence of the word itself. Thus they do not resolve the ambiguities that E-Prime seeks to alleviate without an additional rule, such as that all sentences must contain a verb. Similarly, the Ainu language consistently does not distinguish between "be" and "become"; thus "ne" means both "be" and "become", and "pirka" means "good", "be good", and "become good" equally. Many languages—for instance Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew—already distinguish "existence"/"location" from "identity"/"predication".

E-Prime and Charles Kay Ogden's Basic English lack compatibility because Basic English has a closed set of verbs, excluding verbs such as "become", "remain", and "equal" that E-Prime uses to describe precise states of being. Changes such as those proposed for E-Prime also might eliminate enough ways to express aspect in African American Vernacular English to prove unworkable if applied indiscriminately to such language.

Alfred Korzybski has criticized the use of the verb "to be", and has said that "any proposition containing the word 'is' [or its other conjugations 'are,' be' etc] creates a linguistic structural confusion which will eventually give birth to serious fallacies"Fact|date=January 2007. However, he also justified the expression he coined "the map is not the territory" by saying that "the denial of identification (as in 'is not') has opposite neuro-linguistic effects on the brain from the assertion of identity (as in 'is')." Noam Chomsky, widely regarded as the father of modern linguistics, has commented on Korzybski's "insight":

Sometimes what we say can be misleading, sometimes not, depending on whether we are careful. If there's anything else [in Korzybski's work] , I don't see it. That was the conclusion of my undergrad papers 60 years ago. Reading Korzybski extensively, I couldn't find anything that was not either trivial or false. As for neuro-linguistic effects on the brain, nothing was known when he wrote and very little of that is relevant now.

Discouraged forms

"To be" falls in the set of irregular verbs in English; some individuals, especially those who have learned English as a second language, may have difficulty recognizing all its forms. In addition, speakers of colloquial English frequently contract "to be" after pronouns or before the word "not". E-Prime would prohibit the following words as forms of "to be":

*"is"; "isn't"
*"are"; "aren't"
*"was"; "wasn't"
*"were"; "weren't"
*Contractions formed from a pronoun and a conjugation of "to be":
**"you're"; "we're"; "they're"
**"he's"; "she's"; "it's"
**"there's"; "here's"
**"where's"; "how's"; "what's"; "who's"
*E-Prime likewise prohibits contractions of "to be" found in nonstandard dialects of English, such as the following:
**"hain't" (when derived from "ain't" rather than "haven't")
**"whatcha" (derived from "what are you")
**"yer" (when derived from "you are" rather than "your")

Allowed words

E-prime does not prohibit the following words, because they do not derive from forms of "to be". Some of these serve similar grammatical functions (see auxiliary verbs).
*"has"; "have"; "had"
*"I've"; "you've"
*"do"; "does"; "doing"; "did"
*"can"; "could"
*"will"; "would"
*"shall"; "should"
*"may"; "might"; "must"

Allowed words with prohibited homophones or homographs

The following words may either look (homograph) or sound (homophone) like a form of the word "to be", but they do not have the same meaning.

*"its", the possessive case of the singular gender-neutral pronoun
*Contractions of the form "’s", derived from 'has'
*"hain't" (in nonstandard dialects when derived from "haven't" rather than "ain't")
*Nouns that sound like forms of the verb "to be":
**"bee", meaning an insect or a contest
**"being" when used as a noun, as in Virginia Woolf's statement, "The artist after all is a solitary "being"
**"B", "M", and "R", names of the letters (although "M" is pronounced distinctly from "am" in many dialects)


These are some short examples to illustrate some of the ways that standard English writing can be modified to use E-Prime.

Examples of literal translation vs. translation "in the spirit" of E-Prime

In the original verse ("Roses are red/Violets are blue/Honey is sweet/And so are you") the speaker expresses a belief in absolutes: "just as it is true that roses are red and violets are blue, it is true that you are as sweet as honey". But E-Prime seeks to avoid this type of thinking and writing.

First example of literal translation

An E-Prime translation attempting to preserve the literal meaning of the original might read:

Roses look red;
Violets look blue.
Honey seems sweet,
And so do you.

econd example of literal translation

The following example sacrifices the metaphor implied in line 4 of the original ("You are honey-sweet") to preserve one literal meaning of line 3, namely that honey "tastes" sweet, and therefore replaces line 4 with simile meaning something close to the original: "honey tastes sweet, and something of your nature makes you "as" sweet as that."

Roses look red;
Violets look blue.
Honey tastes sweet,
As sweet as you.

("This example assumes the speaker does not mean the addressee of the poem "tastes sweet," but does mean something like "I find you sweet as honey," and attempts to preserve the meter and rhyme of the original while still avoiding any form of the verb "to be.")

An example of translation "in the spirit" of E-Prime

In an attempt to subtract the assumption of absolutes ("what is") in the original, and to illustrate thought and perspective more in the spirit of E-Prime, the following translation attempts to state meaning directly from a hypothetical speaker's personal feelings toward the addressee, and express that meaning through the filter of that speaker's perceptions of the natural world.Or|date=September 2007 Therefore, the translation below changes the meaning of the poem.

Roses seem red;
Violets seem blue.
I like honey,
And I like you.

That version attempted to say something close to "I perceive the natural world in the way most people do. (Few people would dispute that the most common rose-variety seems red to the human eye, or that violets can appear blue.) Therefore, when I tell you I like honey, I tell you I like a thing most would agree tastes sweet and may also perceive as a pleasing thing in other ways. Therefore by claiming to like honey and to like you, I claim to make that statement with a certainty as absolute as human perception allows."


The usefulness of E-Prime in eliminating prejudice and improving readability, as well as the restrictions it imposes on language, has been questioned by many authors (Lakoff, 1992; Cullen, 1992; Parkinson, 1992; Kenyon, 1992; French, 1992, 1993; Lohrey, 1993). These authors observed that communication in E-prime can still be extremely unclear and imply prejudice, while losing important speech patterns, such as identities and identification. James D. French (1992), a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley, summarised ten arguments against E-Prime as follows:

*The elimination of a whole class of sentences results in fewer alternatives and is likely to make writing less rather than more interesting. Bad writing can be more easily overcome by reducing instances of the verb "to be" rather than eliminating them.
*"Effective writing techniques" are not relevant to general semantics as a discipline, and therefore should not be promoted as general semantics practice.
*The context often ameliorates the possible harmful effects from the use of the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication, so it is not necessary to eliminate all such sentences. For example "George is a Judge" in response to a question of what he does for a living would not be a questionable statement.
*"To be" statements do not only convey identity but also asymmetrical relations ("X is higher than Y"); negation ("A is not B"); location ("Berlin is in Germany"); auxiliary ("I am going to the store") etc., forms which would also have to be sacrificed.
*Eliminating "to be" from English has little effect on eliminating identity. E.g., a statement of apparently equal identification, "The silly practice of E-Prime continues" can be made in E-Prime assuming an identity rather than asserting it, consequently hampering our awareness of it.
*Identity-in-the-language is not the same thing as the far more important identity-in-reaction (identification). General semantics cuts the link between the two through the practice of silence on the objective levels, adopting a self-reflexive attitude, e.g., "as I see it" "it seems to me" etc, and by the use of quotation marks - without using E-Prime.
*The advocates of E-Prime have not proven that it is easier to eliminate the verb "to be" from the English language than it is to eliminate just the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication. It may well be easier to do the latter for many people.
*One of the best languages for time-binding is mathematics, which relies heavily on the notion of equivalence and equality. For the purposes of time-binding, it may be better to keep "to be" in the language while only cutting the link between identity-in-the-language and identification-in-our-reactions.
*A civilization advances when it can move from the idea of individual trees to that of forest. E-Prime tends to make the expression of higher orders of abstraction more difficult, e.g. a student is more likely to be described in E-Prime as "She attends classes at the university".
*E-Prime makes no distinction between statements that cross the principles of general semantics and statements that do not. It lacks consistency with the other tenets of general semantics and should not be included into the discipline.


*Bourland, D. David, Jr. and Paul Dennithorne Johnstone, (editors) (1991) "To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology" : San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics.
*__________________ (1997 ) " E-Prime III: a third anthology": Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.
*Bourland, D. David, Jr., Jeremy Klein, and Paul Dennithorne Johnstone, (editors) (1994) "More E-Prime: To Be or Not II". Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.
*French, James D. (1992) "The Top Ten Arguments against E-Prime." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p175-79
*________________ (1993) " The Prime Problem with General Semantics." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p326-35
*Kenyon, Ralph (1992) "E-Prime: The Spirit and the Letter."ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p185-88
*Lakoff, Robin T. (1992) "Not Ready for Prime Time." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p142-45
*Lohrey, Andrew (1993) "E-Prime, E-Choice, E-Chosen." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p346-50
*Murphy, Cullen (1992) "To Be" in Their Bonnets: A Matter of Semantics." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p125-30 Sum 1992
*Parkinson, Theresa (1992) "Beyond E-Prime." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p192-95

ee also

*General semantics
*Grammatical voice
*Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

External links

* [http://www.e-prime.com E-Prime] - Practice your E-Prime in an online discussion forum
* [http://www.manifestation.com/neurotoys/eprime.pl The e-Primer] - web-based e-Prime inspector
* [http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm Toward understanding E-prime]
* [http://web.archive.org/web/20041012070736/http://objectz.com/columnists/eandd/ Working with E-Prime] - detailed article
* [http://www.esgs.org/uk/art/epr1.htm E-Prime!ndash The Fundamentals] - by D. David Bourland, Jr.
* [http://learn-gs.org/library/etc/ Full-text E-prime articles from the Institute of General Semantics]
* [http://www.xenodochy.org/gs/e-prime.html E-prime: The Spirit and the Letter, by Ralph E. Kenyon Jr.]
* [http://learn-gs.org/library/elaine-eprime.htm Discovering E-Prime, by Elaine C. Johnson]
* [http://www.hilgart.org/papers_html/091S196.B07.html E-Prime and Linguistic Revision, by C. A. Hilgartner]
* [http://learn-gs.org/library/etc/49-2-french.pdf The Top Ten Arguments Against E-Prime (PDF)] - by James D. French, arguing for moderation in use of "to be" rather than abstinence
* [http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/eprime.htm Lakota-Dakota Indian language of the Sioux] also has no verb "to be".

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