Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

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

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

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

Article excerpt

E-Prime! The Fundamentals

AMBROSE BIERCE, in his famous Devil's Dictionary, defined logic as "The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding." As we become conscious of our misunderstandings we improve the quality of our thinking, and most particularly our thinking about thinking, which Richard Paul defines as "critical thinking." In this article I will describe an offshoot of Korzybski's system (18, 19) known as E-Prime: English without any form of the verb to be. The name comes from the equation E' = E-e, where E represents the words of the English language, and e represents the inflected forms of to be.

Depending on exactly how one defines "word," most scholars regard the English language as embracing some one to two million "words," or lexical items. (Note 1.) In E-Prime one simply does without 20 or so of these lexical items; specifically, the to be family: be, is, am, are, was, were, been, being; plus contractions--'m, 's, 're; plus various archaic and dialectual forms--e.g., ain't.

While statistically E-Prime only makes trivial changes relative to the English lexicon, it does affect the syntax. Even this effect, however, does not seem as severe as it might appear. This unexpected lack of severity proceeds from the well-known "richness" of the English language, which provides a wealth of linking verbs (become, seem, appear, verbs related to the senses), apposition, etc., that can take over most of our habitual applications of to be. On the other hand, E-Prime does admittedly entail the necessity of expressing the progressive aspect by using "... continues to ...," and it makes use of the passive voice difficult or even impossible. (Note 2.)

In marked contrast with the areas of the lexicon and syntax, E-Prime delivers major and unexpected consequences to English semantics.

The E-Prime revision of English, although trivial in some respects, has deep underlying epistemological antecedents and consequences. Critical thinkers have struggled with the semantic consequences of the verb to be for hundreds of years. These distinguished persons include Thomas Hobbes (11), Augustus de Morgan (22), Bertrand Russell (24), Alfred North Whitehead (27), George Santayana (25), and Alfred Korzybski (19). Their concern, and ours as critical thinkers, centers upon two semantic usages of to be, Identity and Predication, that have these general structures in which TO BE represents an appropriately inflected form of the verb to be:

Identity: Noun Phrase, + TO BE + Noun Phrase[.sub.2]

Predication: Noun Phrase, + TO BE + Adjective Phrase,


Critical thinkers have argued against using statements having the structure of Identity because they immediately produce high order abstractions that lead the user to premature judgments. Consider the following statement:

John is a farmer.

The immediate consequence of such an identification at the very least brings about unjustified abbreviation, which can severely interfere with communication. For example, consider the following three sentences about John:

1) John farms three acres.

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

3) John receives $20,000 a year from the government for not growing anything on his farm.

We could even carry this illustration into a different dimension:

4) John, after living in the city all his life, has just bought a farm.

5) John grew up on a farm and has farmed there for 61 years.

Despite the fact that 1) through 5) make extremely different statements about John, most English-speaking people feel comfortable making the jump from any one of these statements to John is a farmer. Critical thinkers trained in general semantics hold that John is a farmer does not represent a valid higher order abstraction which could come from such observations as 1) through 5), but rather a possibly incorrect and certainly inadequate abbreviation of the larger picture. …

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