E-Prime

February 29, 2012, by A. U. Crawford

alfred korzbski, creator of e-primeAlfred Korzybski was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist from whose ideas and theories about language, inspired the creation of E-Prime, by D. David Bourland, Jr.. E-Prime simplifies English by removing all forms of the verb ‘to be’ (is, was, were, etc). This has the effect of clarifying a message such to convey experience and not judgement. Then it becomes harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

Korzybski’s theory of general semantics argued that our knowledge is limited by the human nervous system and by the structure of the language we speak. He came up with the dictum: “The map is not the territory”, Or rather it is impossible to represent the reality of anything through communication alone. The belief being that our limited knowledge, language and nervous system not only keeps us from experiencing the whole of reality but at times deceives us as to the truth.

Korzybski advocated an attitude of “I don’t know; let’s see,” and becoming inwardly and outwardly quiet, which he called, “silence on the objective levels”. By doing this he believed that you could gain a better awareness of the world.

As such he thought that certain uses of the verb “to be” was faulty in that it is not clear enough. For instance the statement “Elizabeth is a fool” can mean that she is in fact a fool or that what she did was foolish.

Korzybski’s ideas were not turned into the language E-Prime until 15 years after his death by a student of his, D. David Bourland, Jr., who proposed E-Prime as an addition to Korzybski’s theories. Borland’s 1965 essay entitled A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime caused a bit of controversy because it seemed like he was attacking the verb ‘to be’.

Here’s an example of E-Prime:

“This is an awful movie” sounds like fact. In E-Prime you would say “I dislike this movie” which more clearly expresses an opinion.

“You’re wrong” becomes “I disagree with you” and “This is a Flower” becomes “English speakers call this a flower.”

In 2009 Dr. David F. Maas began composing the New American Standard Bible in E-Prime, and published it in 2010. I’ve read a bit of it and I have to say it is very easy to read. A lot of the bible is interpretation anyway, but this reads well.

There is more information about this at the Institute of General Semantics and the NASB Bible in E-Prime. Wikipedia has more information about Alfred Korzybski and the history of e-prime.

2 thoughts on “E-Prime

  1. Ben Hauck

    Just a point of clarification: Korzybski did not “create” E-Prime. Bourland did. Bourland extended some of Korzybski’s ideas on excluding particular forms of the infinitive “to be” from language, in turn “inventing” E-Prime. I would not consider it proper to say that Korzybski “created” E-Prime but instead taught the ideas that founded the later invention of E-Prime.

    Thank you for posting a note on E-Prime.

    1. Adrian Post author

      Thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t sure if Korzybski should be credited with creating it since E-Prime was created largely from his theories or not.

Leave a Reply