I know this might lose a lot of you off the bat, but how often do you think about the verbs you choose? A while ago, a friend told me about a language called E-Prime. Simply put, E-Prime refers to the sum of the English language, minus all versions of the verb “to be”. In other words, E-Prime contains all the same words as English, except for the following: be, being, is, isn’t, am, are, aren’t, was, were, weren’t.
It sounds like an interesting thought experiment. Except that various academics have written extensive papers explaining the significance and virtue of a language minus the pernicious verb “to be”. And I find myself wishing that more writers – journalists, especially – would take note.
Why use E-Prime? Several reasons spring to mind.
Firstly, E-Prime jettisons the passive voice. No longer can you construct sentences using is seen, was said, was killed, will be found, was written, will be done. Instead, E-Prime forces you to ascribe agency. Who sees it? Who said it? Who killed it? Who will find it? Who wrote it?
So what? Well, it results in clearer, easier to read, and – most importantly for me – more accurate and specific writing. Too many unexamined assumptions lurk behind that passive voice which has become the ubiquitous construction of so much so-called information these days. In my role as editor, I spend a lot of time excising the passive voice from new authors’ work. Changing apparently simple textbook statements like Gold is mined underground to We mine gold underground. What difference does the change make? A lot, I’d say. Apart from the fact that students, especially second-language students find the passive voice confusing. The change subtly ascribes responsibility to the statement, subtly imparts a deeper level of understanding: Things do not simply happen, passively, then wait for us to observe them. People make them happen. Someone chooses to mine that gold; someone sets up the infrastructure and someone else goes down with a light on his head and sweats his way along the coalface. The first statement does not open this awareness to the reader. The second statement does.
Secondly, E-Prime encourages you to take responsibility for your own subjective opinions. The rose isn’t red, darling; the rose appears red. The movie isn’t great, sweetheart; we watched it; you liked it; I loved it, and those other silly people walked out. What is the movie? It’s a movie, that’s all. If you want to say something about it, E-Prime nudges you closer to clarifying your opinions accurately. E-Prime cannot eliminate opportunities for spouting dogma and unexamined prejudice. But it can encourage the speaker or writer to acknowledge and “own” their point of view.
So. I wouldn’t advocate that you rewire your brain to yank out any versions of “to be” from your everyday usage. But next time you want to write something, think carefully about what you want to say. And take a little meander into your brain, and find a suitable verb for that sentence.