Beef Up Your Verbs with E-Prime
By William Campbell
Every writer knows that verbs carry the
action of a sentence. Verbs move the story forward, show the reader what
your characters do and think, and help create solid visual images. The
stronger the verbs, the more the reader will be engaged in the story. Read
the following sentences and decide which one sounds more interesting.
The writer was writing a new story.
The writer hammered out a new story.
Did you pick the second one? Why? What made
that sentence a better choice? They both gave the reader an active image and
used adequate grammar and structure. I merely changed the verbs, opting to
use a more evocative verb in the second sentence.
The verb "to be" is rarely strongly
evocative, and should be avoided in writing if possible. A surefire way to
accomplish this is to write in E-Prime, an English subset that abolishes the
use of the verb "to be". Let's take a look at E-Prime.
E-Prime owes its roots to Alfred
Korzybski's theory of General Semantics. Introduced in his 1933 book
Science and Sanity, General Semantics pointed out at the pitfalls of
Aristotelian (black or white) logic and encourages precise-thinking and a
more accurate method of communication. This later became know as Null-A
(non-Aristotelian), as popularized by science-fiction writer A. E Van Vogt.
According to this theory, one of the flaws
of Aristotelian logic deals with using the verb "to be" for identity and
prediction. In 1949, a student of Korzybski's named D. David Bourland, Jr.,
set out to demonstrate that he could write and speak without using any form
of "to be." His success in this allowed Bourland to communicate his ideas in
a more clear and concise manner.
While a few scientists and authors have
learned the clarity of E-Prime, the English subset has not caught on in the
general population in either speech or writing.
In his 1990 article, "Quantum Psychology,"
writer Robert Anton Wilson makes the case for using E-Prime when he argues
that using is "sets the brain into a medieval Aristotelian framework
and makes it impossible to understand modern problems and opportunities." In
other words, we live in a world too complicated for simple, black and white
Semantic uses of "to be" center on two
basic constructions: identity (noun + "to be" + noun) and prediction (noun +
"to be" + adjective).
In looking at identity, Bourland, in his
1989 article, "To Be Or Not To Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking,"
urges us to look at the following sentence:
John is a farmer.
This sentence fails to tell enough
information about John, and leaves an abstract version of him. In contrast,
Bourland asks us to consider these three different sentences about John:
John farms three
John owns and
operates a 2,000-acre farm.
$20,000 a year from the government for not growing anything on his farm.
Each sentence creates an entirely different
version of John than the vague "John is a farmer," and clarifies more about
John as a person.
Think of what this can do for your writing.
Instead of telling your readers that "Sue is a student," you can say that
"Sue studies law at Creighton University."
The use of "to be" to predict also has
flaws. Look at the following sentences:
John is lazy.
John is a hard worker.
Impossible, your reader might think. John
can't be lazy and a hard worker at the same time. However, by
eliminating the "to be" verb and offering your reader a more precise
description, your reader might learn that John performs lazily when faced
with government paperwork, but enjoys working hard when he's outside in the
fields. Abolish "is" and the reader has a fuller, richer, and more logical
version of John.
E-Prime can be used to improve the quality
of your fiction. Many beginning writers hear advice like "show don't tell"
and "avoid passive voice." E-Prime offers you the chance to apply both
pieces of advice to your writing. By examining your verbs and replacing
those boring "to be" verbs with punchy, energetic ones, you can add clarity
to your prose and make your writing stand up in the ring on its own.
Please consider giving E-Prime a shot. Try
it out for a short story or a chapter and see if it improves the quality of
your fiction. Whether you decide to write in strict E-Prime or not, I
implore you to always seek out the most powerful, descriptive verbs you can
hammer out. Your readers deserve it.
Bourland, D. David Jr.
"To Be or Not To Be: E-Prime
as a Tool for Critical Thinking"
ETC: A Review of General
46, No. 3, Fall 1989
Wilson, Robert Anton
The Robert Anton Wilson Website