E-Prime, short for English Prime, is a modification of the English language that prohibits the use of the verb "to be". The term was coined by Dr. David Bourland, a student of Alfred Korzybski's, in the 1965 work A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime. E-Prime arose from Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and his observation that English speakers most often use "to be" to express dogmatic beliefs or assumptions or to avoid expressing opinions and feelings as such.

The verb can express several distinct meanings:

  • identity, of the form "noun be noun" [The cat is an animal]
  • predication, of the form "noun be adjective" [The cat is furry]
  • auxiliary, of the form "noun be verb" [The cat is sleeping]
  • existence, of the form "noun be" [There is a cat]
  • location, of the form "noun be place" [The cat is on the mat]

Bourland sees specifically the "identity" and "predication" forms 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".

Note also that the elimination of "to be" implicitly eliminates the passive voice and progressive aspect, which may explain part of the difficulty of some people when learning to use E-Prime.

Its advocates assert that the use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of writing that reduces the possibility for misunderstanding and conflict. Detractors might observe that some languages already treat the word very differently without giving any obvious advantages to their speakers. For instance, Arabic, like Russian, already lacks a verb form of "to be" or "is" in the present tense. If one wanted to assert, in Arabic, that "an apple is red", one would not literally say "the apple looks red", but "the apple red". That is, speakers can communicate the verb form of "to be" even without the existence of the word itself. 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 is not compatible with C. K. Ogden's Basic English because Basic English has a closed set of verbs that does not include the verbs such as "become", "remain", and "equal" that E-Prime uses to express states of "being". The changes also may eliminate enough ways to express aspect in African American Vernacular English to prove unworkable.


Prohibited words

To be is an irregular verb in English; some individuals, especially those for whom English is 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 prohibits the following words as forms of to be:

  • be
  • being
  • been
  • am
  • is; isn't
  • are; aren't
  • was; wasn't
  • were; weren't
  • Contractions formed from a pronoun and a conjugation of to be:
    • I'm
    • you're; we're; they're
    • he's; she's; it's (when derived from it is)
  • E-Prime likewise prohibits contractions of to be found in nonstandard dialects of English, such as the following:
    • ain't
    • hain't (when derived from ain't rather than haven't)

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).

  • become
  • has; have
  • I've; you've
  • do; does; doing; did
  • can; could
  • will; would
  • shall; should
  • ought

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're actually not.

  • its, the possessive case of the singular gender-neutral pronoun
  • 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)


E-Prime Standard English

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

Roses look red;
Violets look blue.
Honey pleases me,
And so do you.
Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

Alice began to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister read, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what use does a book have,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'
—modified from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Other meanings

E-Prime can also refer to a commercial software package for Microsoft Windows for designing interactive experiments. It is primarily used in the fields of psychology and neurology, and features a Visual Basic-style scripting environment, and a high degree of timing precision. However, it has also been criticised for its relatively high cost and low flexibility compared to an older, similar (and free) program for the Macintosh called PsyScope.

See also

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