Go find me a verb please – one that works

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.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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5 Responses to Go find me a verb please – one that works

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh my hat…!

    Word keeps telling me I use the passive voice. It is like it’s trying to coach me along and I just don’t listen to it.

    Does it know me? I wonder if I can be to it, what it is to me?

    ~a wannabe werewolf!

  2. Lisa says:

    Dear Wannabe Werewolf
    We can never be to anything (or anyone) else what they are to us. We can only intersect briefly for a moment…
    But perhaps MS Word knows you better than you think 😉


  3. Nikolai says:

    I think the passive voice is one of these constructions of the “no-blame” culture. Savage people from backward cultures don’t genitally mutilate females. Because that’d indict ethnic minorities.

    No, women are genitally mutilated. It’s a force of nature, don’t you know. Oh well, I promise not to use the passive voice again x


  4. Alex says:

    i think you may find this article and the links embedded very interesting


  5. meganshead says:

    Great. I hadn’t thought of it before, but now that you put it like that…

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