Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Do Away with "To Be" - There, Pupils, Lies the Answer

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Do Away with "To Be" - There, Pupils, Lies the Answer

Article excerpt

DOES THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE really need the verb to be or does its use involve more liabilities than benefits? For the past several hundred years, philosophers, scholars, and English teachers have warned against the abuse of the verb (basically am, are, is, was, were, be and been).

More pragmatically, English teachers continue to tell students: "Vary your verb choices! Use the active voice! Release trapped verbs! Say who did what to whm!" These pretty much boil down to one simple rule: "Avoid the verb to be!" But in the past even those who warned against the verb continued using it themselves.

In 1965, D. David Bourland, Jr., now a retired professor of linguistics, made the audacious suggestion that we could give up the use of to be altogether, and that this modification of English (labeled by him "English-Prime" or "E-Prime") might even improve the language. At first, Bourland's idea may sound odd and impractical, but over the past 25 years numerous articles, books, and even dissertations have confirmed E-Prime's usefulness.

Some advocates consider E-Prime a more descriptive form of English that tends to bring the user back to the "level of first-person experience." It estimates the overdefining of situations that confuse one aspect of an experience with a much more complex totality. This occurs mainly in sentences using the "is of identify" (John is a jerk") and the "is of perdication" ("The apple is red"). Writing can improve with E-Prime because users must often replace the passive voice ("It was done") with the more informative active voice ("Russell did it"). It also encourages the use of verbs other than to be by eliminating sentence structures of the X is Y form ("Elaine is a teacher") and using subject-verb-object structures instead ("Elaine teaches English").

The verb to be encourages the "Deity mode" of speech, as seen frequently in political speeches and in statements such as "This is the truth." Even the most uninformed can use this mode to transform their opinions magically into godlike pronouncements on the objective nature of things. E-Prime minimizes such presumption, and users must often take overt responsibility for their opinions. For example, "The Northlight is a good restaurant" might become "I enjoy eating at the Northlight restaurant." The unrecognized assumptions that to be often introduces can also impair perceptivity and even creativity. …

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