Updated: Jun 10
In 1965 the splendidly-named Delphus David Bourland Jr published an academic paper on semantics. It contained a rather radical thought; an idea that once shared can prove difficult to shift. Read on at your peril. TO EXIST OR NOT TO EXIST Bourland invented a new version of English: Think of it as Release 2.0. It looked astonishingly like the existing language – the same nouns, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation and syntax. Except he removed one key building block of the linguistic structure: The verb “to be”. Its derivatives were also culled: is, am, are, was, were, be, been, being. Bourland advocated a complete purge, saying that it represented only “20 or so lexical items” out of some one to two million. Not only wouldn’t the language suffer from their absence, in many instances it would improve. He called it E-Prime. At first pass, it sounds like the act of an academic with too much time on his hands (after he had finished sweeping the steps of his ivory tower). Did he intend to spend the rest of his tenure revising the entire Anglo-Saxon canon, starting with Hamlet perhaps?
Not at all. Bourland focused less on the poetry of language than its function as a representation of human experience. His gripe with be/is/am centred on the faux certainty they bring to communication. As he put it: “implications of permanence and static experience that we do not find in the ‘real world.’” In other words, ‘to be’ doesn’t actually reflect what we perceive and believe that we know. (At this point, I recall the voice of a previous manager many moons ago, who had just sat through another of my brilliant strategy presentations: “Really good Paul. Well researched, insightful, stimulating. But what do we do on Monday?”) THE PROBLEM OF PREDICATION Imagine this scenario; you attend a meeting to discuss investment in a new venture. In a pumped-up atmosphere – in which egos compete for oxygen – the leader of the new initiative completes his data-packed presentation with: “The market is buoyant, the technology is proven. This is a breakthrough. This is the competitive edge that we need.” Stirring stuff indeed. The room is filled with air punches and ‘whoops’ of excitement. “This is a winner!” And yet, and yet – who really knows that the market ‘is buoyant’? Which market? How buoyant? How long will the buoyancy last? How do we define a ‘breakthrough’? Breakthrough into what – all the market? Some of the market? Our existing customers? As Bourland says in a more recent paper: “ (E-Prime) invites attention to the verbal excesses of those who enjoy speaking in the ‘Deity Mode’.” Simply put, it helps detect those who present opinion as truth: · “The film was awful” (The dialogue sounded clunky and I have never been a fan of the lead actress.) · “Mr Tibbles is very friendly” (My cat will happily sit on your lap but when the mood takes him, he scratches.) · “Manchester United are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen” (The club has had a good run under the current manager, and I have conveniently forgotten how we relegated to the Second Division under Tommy Docherty.) Is offers an implication of completeness, finality and time independence; how ironic that this should have gone unnoticed in a business world where “change is the only constant”.
THE ISSUE OF IDENTITY
The second implication of E-Prime holds a more personal impact. Think for a moment of life without the conjugation I am. Let’s take a hypothetical character, Simon. He finds himself on the receiving end of a merger and corporate restructuring. He and his colleagues must apply for their own jobs, and despite hours of preparation and practice, he ends the process without a role. His conclusion..? "I am a failure." Which illustrates the core problem with am: it puts us in a box. In this case, it casts a pall of gloom over everything. For Simon, the shorthand of ‘I am a failure’ informs his entire outlook. Similarly, descriptions such as ‘I am shy’, ‘I am loud’, ‘I am important’ – labels that colour all perception, and prevent the user from attending to the reality happening before them. Ask Simon to describe what else was going on in his life, he tells of his children’s achievements at school, his fundraising with the local Rotary Club, the generosity of his severance package, the messages and calls of support he had received from his colleagues – some of whom had survived the downsizing, some of whom hadn’t. In describing his experience, Simon reframes the description of himself, and finds a much richer, deeper self-identity.
WHAT DO WE DO ON MONDAY? Like many other attempts to impose new language rules, E-Prime never really took off. A few authors wrote papers – even a couple of books – without to be. Paradoxically, the resultant texts have a very active voice and employ vivid descriptions. I do not advocate anything as drastic as Bourland’s complete ban. Rather, I offer the practice as a lens through which to view the statements of others - especially politicians - and, perhaps more practically, as a way out when you find yourself in a personal cul-de-sac. Try adapting E-Prime to write to yourself about an issue. It forces two outcomes: expression using straightforward statements, and a level of detachment that brings with it clarity. Don’t expect an easy ride, though. E-Prime drags you kicking-and-screaming away from well-trodden mental paths, and brings you face-to-face with the laziness of your thinking. As I have found in writing this post. For Rutherposts direct to you inbox, subscribe *here*