As part of a greater strategy of avoiding my work, I recently found myself reading David Bourland’s defence of E-Prime: a form of English without any form of the verb “to be”. Perhaps to further my procrastination, I hope to convince you why this adaptation may prove useful to all critical thinkers, not just linguists.
Though not the first to do so, Bourland explores several inadequacies within the verb “to be”. Two forms have particularly preoccupied critical thinkers for centuries, and for good reason:
Where something or someone denotes some [noun]. E.g. Ella is a student.
Where something or someone denotes some [adjective]. E.g. The earth is round.
First, in the case of identity, the verb generalises and often leads to premature judgement. Consider the following example offered by Bourland: ”John is a farmer”.
At first glance, this sentence seems simple. But take a closer look and unjustified abbreviations have severely limited communication, quite often to someone’s advantage.
For example, consider the following three sentences about “John”:
- John farms three acres
- John owns and operates a 2,000-acre farm
- John receives £20,000 a year from the government for not growing anything on his farm.
Despite each of these statements drawing attention to important distinctions, English speakers, unbothered, often encompass and replace all with “John is a farmer”. To label as being a farmer in these cases ignores the distinction between the quality “farmer”. While we ultimately benefit from this for ease of language, we must remain aware that shortcuts in language often lead to shortcuts in thinking, most familiar to us as prejudice and stereotype.
Second, the predicate form of “to be” carries with it implications of completeness, finality, and time independence. In other words, if we describe an object as “being” a certain way, we impose our perception of the object onto its finite, complete and unchangeable essence.
When we do this, we imply that such a thing shall unconditionally “be” a certain way (whether we observe it that way, or not). If it ceased “being” this way, it would somewhat cease to “be”. In contrast, “It seems x” (e.g. it seems round) allows us to appreciate that we can only ever experience the world through (and as) ourselves, and so do not isolate our experience from others, appreciating what knowledge we may gain from their perspective.
Bourland summarises his challenge of the predicate form as follows:
- Everything in the “real world” changes
- Every person, as well as every “thing”, undergoes change
- […] “to be” carries with it archaic associations and implications of permanence and static existence that we do not find in the “real world” (Bourland, 2004).
Controversially, Bourland suggests we should rid ourselves not only of these two types but of all uses of “to be”.
Why getting rid of “to be” helps, not hinders, freedom of speech
How can limiting our language, after all, help us speak more clearly? And how can the removal of certain words increase our language? To begin with, the removal of all uses of “to be” requires justification; perhaps it seems reasonable to reject identity and predicate forms of “to be”, but should we reject all uses on this basis?
E-Prime removes the usage of around 20 words from the English language. For reference, this constitutes 0.001% of the total word count in English. Therefore, if E-Prime offers a net advantage, it must do so at a rate greater than 0.001%. And E-Prime does exactly this.
I won’t attempt to cover all the numerous ways in which E-Prime supposedly improves speech, or else I’d make this article far too long and boring, for it offers a large number of benefits. However, I shall explain how E-Prime impacts the real world in two cases: how we consider disability and how we consider violence.
Disability and the Passive Voice
In a recent publication, Devon Price outlines what E-Prime can mean for liberation: refrain from the passive voice and you might just highlight the causes of injustices (Price, 2023). Removing implications of permanence or inevitability means that the seeming inevitability of something no longer goes unchallenged, especially when such inevitability comes from the often automatic and unconsidered generalisation of “to be”.
To use disability as an example, E-Prime highlights something significant. Take the sentence: “I am disabled”. Most readers will take this to mean something similar to “I am impaired”; you might even point to the word in defence, after all, doesn’t it say dis-abled, as in not able? Perhaps, but to mention only this, as people often do, would imply that only this bears mentioning.
The eagle-eyed reader might well remember Bourland’s warning: “I am disabled” constitutes an identity. So, to quickly recap, This form of “to be” raises two problems:
- Firstly, it asserts that we can – and ought to – assimilate all disabilities under one label in some meaningful way when, in fact, just as much diversity occurs between disabled and non-disabled people as among disabled people; and,
- Secondly, this assimilation to some precise identity represents some universal and unchanging truth about disability when, in fact, “no structure can have precise identity with another – or even itself at two different times” (Bourland, 2004).
However, in the case of disability, liberation demands we disregard the passive voice. Not only does the abbreviation consist of incorrect or inadequate generalisations, but such generalisation unjustly places the disability solely within the individual.
In fact, since learning about E-Prime, advocating for my own needs appears far more coherent; where I might have previously requested adjustments because I “am” disabled, instead I now outline exactly how the lack of adjustments disables me. In practice, we can apply this in several ways. For instance, and as I suspect rings true for many other students, I learn best when I can watch a lecture at the most convenient time. Therefore, should a professor choose not to use Lecture Capture, they disable my learning.
Though I have different needs from other students (because, after all, no two students have the same needs), this doesn’t mean that my needs disable my learning, but the fact that my professors do not meet them. Should a lecturer, appreciative of the diversity of learning styles among their students, make room for lecture capture in their teaching, in doing so, they would refrain from declaring one form of learning superior (and therefore noteworthy) to another. They provide the space for various types of success and knowledge to flourish, ultimately to the benefit of the discipline as a whole. Therefore, when a lecturer refuses to record their lectures, they not only disable me but epistemological advances more generally.
A few of you may remain sceptical. So, imagine the following scenario:
You walk into your lecture hall to find that your lecturer insists on teaching in the dark. You request he turns the lights on for you to better see the board (or in other words, so that you can meet your learning needs), but he says no. He explains (either literally or through implication) that this requires implementing learning adjustments on an individual basis, something which does not impose a duty on him or his lectures. If he feels generous, he may signpost you to the Wellbeing Services.
It would seem odd to qualify your request as a learning adjustment. And yet it qualifies just the same:
- Turning the lights on improves your learning.
- What’s more, it would seem unreasonable to expect you to perform to the same quality as if the professor did switch on the lights.
- Further to this, it seems odd to pinpoint the problem with you or to suggest that your inability to see represents a problem with you, and not with your environment. After all, the implication that you ought to have this ability to see in the dark seems incompatible with the knowledge of the human eye.
By not switching on the light, the professor disables your learning, not because this makes you disabled (since for him to expect you to have the ability to see in the dark would seem inappropriate), but because the conditions expected of you do not adequately fulfil your needs or appropriately reflect your abilities. My expectation that professors accommodate my needs bears no difference and should seem no odder than your request to learn with the lights on.
Replying to Some Objections
The above analogy might seem odd. After all, should someone not have a disability, then it seems fair to say they do not deserve extra adjustments. More specifically, we might even suggest that only those with official diagnoses may fairly access such accommodations. I will not venture to offer an answer to the thorny question of whether we ought to pathologise disability. However, on the question of advantage, I offer the following point: should someone have a particularly good aptitude for seeing in the dark, it remains just to turn the lights on since the presence of their original advantage doesn’t necessarily imply that they deserve such an advantage.
By locating the inability outside of disability, E-Prime offers the opportunity to appreciate why these inabilities have surfaced; as opposed to suggesting things just “are”, it provides us with the space to consider whether we like the way things operate currently. Its language equally reduces internalised ableism by separating the person from their (in)abilities, allowing a more holistic appreciation within the wider social context. E-Prime asks why we ought to ask for some accommodations, whereas others appear obvious, and so forces us to reconsider the potentially abstract nature of this distinction.
E-Prime will not liberate us. However, when adopted in our speech, E-Prime allows us to more easily highlight where injustices come from, making for a much easier task of dismantling them.
by Roman Irven
Bourland, D.D. (2004) ‘To Be or Not To Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking’, ETC: A
Review of General Semantics, 61(4), pp. 546–557.
Bourland, D.D. and Johnston, P.D. (1991) To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San
International Society for General Semantics.
Price, D. (2023) ‘Want to Highlight the Cause of an Injustice? Write in the Active Voice.’,
Medium, 20 January. Available at: https://devonprice.medium.com/want-to-highlight-the-cause-of-an-injustice-write-in-the-active-voice-3d5dd82482c6 (Accessed: 22 February 2023).
 Please refer to To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, for a more general inquiry (Bourland and Johnston, 1991).
 Disability as impairment follows from the Medical Model of disability. For an alternative, though arguably still not satisfying, model, see the Social Model of disability. I propose an alternative to both.
 See the naturalistic fallacy for more detail.