E-Prime and the Retiring of ‘To Be’

A form of constrained writing, E-Prime strives to completely restrict the use of the verb to be as a way to prevent implications of certainty and objectivity.

As part of the This Column Will Change Your Life series, Oliver Burkeman discusses the merits of E-Prime and unambiguous language.

To think about and function in the world, [Alfred Korzybski] said, we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don’t reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst. And the verb “to be”, he argued, contains the most traps of all. […]

“Our judgments can only be probabilistic,” wrote Allen Walker Read, a Korzybski follower. “Therefore we would do well to avoid finalistic, absolutistic terms. Can we ever find ‘perfection’ or ‘certainty’ or ‘truth’? No! Then let us stop using such words in our formulations.” E-Prime provided an easy way to do this: simply stop using “to be”.

All this might seem maniacally pointless pedantry. But as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and “finalistic, absolutistic” thoughts trigger stressful emotions. “I am a failure” feels permanent, all-encompassing, hopeless. Restating it in E-Prime – “I feel like a failure” or “I have failed at this task” – makes it limited, temporary, addressable.

via rtbc