The English Prime Challenge
English Prime looks and sounds just like the everyday English language we use with family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers, with one major exception, the verb ‘to be’ and all its variants, i.e., is, was, am, will be, etc., are removed. By using English Prime, often referred to as E-Prime, one can communicate more clearly and realistically than otherwise. The verb ‘to be’ creates the illusion of absolute certainty and unequivocal truths. Sometimes, this is appropriate, such as the statement, the flower is planted in the pot, or when describing certain properties or qualities, such as the dog is hairy. Even then, the word ‘hairy’ can have many levels of meaning and as such is not terribly clear. When used in the context of identity, the word ‘is’ becomes very problematic. For example, the simple sentence ‘John is a troublemaker’ would appear to suggest that John makes trouble all the time everywhere. Moreover, it suggests that one’s own perception of the situation should be taken as truth, which it is not. Another person may perceive John as a goof off, but not a troublemaker.
A more accurate and realistic statement about John’s behavior might be something like, ‘the way I see it, John appears to behave as a troublemaker when at school.’ This conveys a point of view, in a given context, not an absolute universal truth; it presents an appearance of behaviors which are interpreted by the observer as being that of a troublemaker, in a particular setting; it does not imply equality between John the person and a specific set of behaviors, in a specific set of conditions. John may behave in a very helpful and compliant way with friends outside of school. John is very helpful would contradict John is a troublemaker. Which one true? Which one false? It depends on the observer, and on the context, the conditions under which those behaviors are being observed.
Let’s take another simple example: The sky is blue. Although this may seem the common experience, and does describe a property or quality of the sky, one would agree that the sky exhibits many shades of blue, at different times of the day; at night one would say the sky is black. E-Prime would remove the ‘is’ and replace it with something like ‘appears as.’ The sky does only appear as blue at some times, for many people, but not all people, at all times. By stating the sky is blue, the presumption becomes that it appears as blue for all people at all times, which it does not.
English Prime arose in the mid 1960’s out of General Semantics. Here is the main idea of General Semantics: ‘people can only know what they observe and experience when they see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, and feel, and furthermore, that what they observe and experience can affect how they observe and experience in the future. Because each person has different experiences throughout their lives, they interpret their experiences differently‘ (wikipedia.org). This way of understanding semantics (i.e., the science of meaning in language) aligns with modern quantum physics, in that the observer and the observed influence each other, that which we perceive becomes colored by the very act of perception itself. We don’t really experience an object as much as we experience our interaction with an object. Just about everything we call reality exists as a point of view, a perspective.
Another example, simple in structure and yet potent in effect, ‘I am depressed’ becomes ‘I feel depressed.’ There is a huge difference between being depressed and feeling depressed. In the former, we are identified as depressed; in the latter, we are experiencing a feeling or state of mind. Or, better yet, ‘I feel depressed when I make a mistake’ adding a context, a condition to that state of mind. And, even better than that, ‘I experience feelings I label as depressing when I make a mistake.’ The statement ‘I am depressed’ has an unrealistic absolute-ness about it. Some proponents of E-Prime have stated that improper use of the verb ‘to be’ creates a kind of ‘deity mode of speech’ which allows ‘even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things‘ (wikipedia.org). Our point of view, our perspective, the ways in which we as an individual interact with our world, may appear to us as ‘our truth’ but, in fact, falls far short of Truth. Individual truth does not exist. Individual perception, interpretation, point of view and meaning does exist. Truth is; everything else: appears as. So, when you find yourself saying something like so and so is a such and such, or that I am such and such. Stop. Consider how you might phrase that using E-Prime. Take into account this idea of personal perspective, point of view, context and conditions, not an absolute, eternal fact. Up your game. Consider applying English Prime to your written and spoken words. It will require some rethinking, and rewording, of common phrases. The benefits include improved clarity of thought, speech and communication. It even has benefits in the realms of mental health.