Lazette Gifford
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zette@cableone.net

 

Beef Up Your Verbs with E-Prime

By William Campbell
2006,
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

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 descriptions.

Semantic uses of "to be" center on two basic constructions: identity (noun + "to be" + noun) and prediction (noun + "to be" + adjective).

Identity

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 acres.

John owns and operates a 2,000-acre farm.

John receives $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."

Prediction

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.

References:

Bourland, D. David Jr.

"To Be or Not To Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking"

ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall 1989

http://www.esgs.org/uk/art/epr1.htm

Wilson, Robert Anton

"Quantum Psychology"

The Robert Anton Wilson Website

http://www.rawilson.com/quantum.html