E-Prime as a Revision Strategy: A Simple, Systematic Editing Technique Offers Access to Dynamics of Language Ordinarily Subliminal

By Zimmerman, Daniel | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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E-Prime as a Revision Strategy: A Simple, Systematic Editing Technique Offers Access to Dynamics of Language Ordinarily Subliminal


Zimmerman, Daniel, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Daniel Zimmerman (*)

IN 1992, I LEARNED ABOUT E-PRIME -- a dialect of English using no forms of the verb to be -- as a technique to clarify thinking. Looking through drafts and final copies of my own prose -- papers, news articles, reports, speeches, video scripts -- I found far fewer to be forms in successive drafts, though I had not especially tried to reduce their incidence. Of course, teachers and handbooks have long -- and ineffectually -- suggested that writers seek stronger alternatives to this overused verb, but E-Prime advocates like E. W. Kellogg III insist on its extirpation. In a National Public Radio interview with All Things Considered's Robert Siegle, Kellogg mentioned a book on the subject, To Be or Not; I eventually located a copy in the Omaha Public Library. Meanwhile, I decided to try E-Prime in my Individualized English classes.

While grading papers, I circled each form of to be. I provided students with a list of the various forms of to be and asked them to eliminate to be verbs in their revisions. The first student arrived -- haggard, complaining about the difficulty of the assignment, but proud that she had finally expunged the verb from her paper. As I read through the paper with her, her eyes widened in disbelief, her face grew pale, her breath came in gasps and groans: fourteen uses of to be appeared on the first page alone. After ruling out narcolepsy, we began to examine and appreciate I. A. Richards' caveat that "[o]f all the snares in language, those set for us by be are (sic) without doubt the sliest" (162). Still, be forms continued to appear in most students' second and even third revisions, much to their chagrin.

Much to my chagrin, I quickly discovered, first, that many attempts to translate Standard English to E-Prime revealed appalling failures to grasp English sentence structure; second, that the instrument we used to test for sentence structure (which may assume that certain sentences must have a to be verb) often failed to identify some important weaknesses in fluency and, third, that such weaknesses function at an unconscious level, reinforced by reliance on be-form patternings.

It seems axiomatic that a reader who cannot paraphrase a text cannot demonstrate an understanding of it. Most students acknowledge that principle for assigned readings, but balk at applying it to their own writing. I require students to paraphrase, using E-Prime, about half their sentences, using as stylistic models the best of the rest of their sentences, already written in native' E-Prime.

The more gracefully and effectively they learn to do this, the more they begin to sound like themselves as writers. However, the first stage of mastering E-Prime usually bristles with infelicities, and so provides a handy diagnostic tool to determine each student's specific suite of weaknesses. Barbarisms of diverse etiology characterize this stage; for example:

Both ESL and native speakers sometimes resort to creolization when translating into E-Prime, "[d]oing without be as both copula and auxiliary: 'She a fine scholar'" (Todd & Hancock 498). "We going to Miami for spring break."

They may fail to recognize the transitivity or intransitivity of a 'replacement' verb:

* not "John is tall," but "John exists tall."

* not "The laws are upheld due only to fear," but "The laws uphold due only to fear."

Sometimes they switch degrees of ostensive reality or certainty:

* not "Helen is dressed," but "Helen seems dressed."

Sometimes the attempt produces a dangling modifier:

* not "While he is dedicated to his work, his family comes first," but "While dedicated to his work, his family comes first."

A hasty choice may warp the context:

* not "Bill is bleeding," but "Bill appears bleeding." [as if on stage]

We have all seen writers naively commit errors like these -- errors most would never say.

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E-Prime as a Revision Strategy: A Simple, Systematic Editing Technique Offers Access to Dynamics of Language Ordinarily Subliminal
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