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Do away with "to be" - there, pupils, lies the answer.

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. For example, compare "The man is drunk" to "The man acts drunk" or "There is no solution to this problem" to "No one has solved this problem yet."

Does E-Prime have any disadvantages? Well, practitioners lose to be as an auxiliary verb, to indicated existence and to create metaphors. Although some critics would say that suc h losses reduce the viability of E-Prime as an independent language, most at least appreciate its effectiveness in the short term as a pedagogic tool. So far, some English teachers have established that courses in E-Prime can provide a practical and entertaining way of helping students gain awareness of how they overuse and abuse the verb to be, and of the opportunities offered by other verb choices and sentence structures.

E-Prime involves a number of limitations that many would find onerous, and one would no more expect it to appeal to the majority of English-speaking people than a low-fat vegetarian diet wojuld to the same group. The controversy over E-Prime has just begun, and the summer [1992] issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics presents many of the pros and cons of the issue. Although practitioners of E-Prime advocate the complete elimination of to be, they assert than any reduction in the use of the verb can have beneficial effects. The future success of the movement for such reduction may not depend upon its wide acceptance, but upon its adoption by individuals who use it because of its practical value.

DeWitt Scott, an editor for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote that "removing the supreme irritant, to be, forces me to express myself in straightforward statements and come out of the clouds." Robert Ian Scott, a professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, minimized his use of to be to such an extent in this textbook The Secific Writer that less than five percent of the sentences use the verb. The February, 1992, issue of The Atlantic magazine brough the idea of E-Prime to the attention of a broad audience in an article called "To Be in Their Bonnets."

George Santayana put it this way in Skepticism and Animal Faith: "Whenever I use the word is, expect in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder and the members of my family no longer know one another."
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Title Annotation:E - Prime Symposium II.
Author:Kellogg, E.W., II
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Media and culture.
Next Article:E-Prime and E-Plus.

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