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The prime problem with general semantics.

THE SUMMER 1992 issue of ETC., contains my article, "The Top Ten Arguments Against E-Prime."(1) David Bourland criticized the article (and other essays leery of the E-Prime movement) in that sme issue.(2) This essay constitutes my response.

Just as some individuals use Zen meditation to achieve one of the goals of general semantics (silence on the objectives levels of abstraction), other individuals use E-Prime to become more mindful of language structure. I do not object to the use of virtuous methods such as Zen, E-Prime, the Alexander Technique, or any other discipline for the purpose of attaining the goals of general semantics; but I would object (and in the case of E-Prime, I do object) to any attempt to weave those disciplines directly into the fabric of our non-Aristotelian system. Why? Because, as I see it, E-Prime, Zen, and some other practices, have aspects about them that are discordant with our science-oriented methodology.

So, in this essay, I will state my case against E-Prime, starting with my reactions to Mr. Bourland's paper.(3)

I was particularly struck by the title of Mr. Bourland's paper: "E-Prime and Un-Sanity." From his writings, I gain the impression that Mr. Bourland considers "un-sanity," and the use of the verb "to be," as inexorably linked. And so, using the verb "to be" leads to un-sanity, in his view, even for persons trained in general semantics. But there is simply no [evidence.sup.1993] that trained general semanticists who include "to be" in their language are any more "un-sane" than those who adopt E-Prime. Until there is such evidence, we can and should reject flatly any writing that might smear others with a label like that.

In his paper, Mr. Bourland resorted to ridiculing the E-Prime critics by listing his negative responses to their efforts in an "Agony Matrix." And incredibly, he criticized six people for not writing their criticism of E-Prim in E-Prime. William Dilworth, in a letter to me, responded with the following comments: "I find it amusing that in the explicitly forensic ETC. article, Bourland includes 'failure to write in E-Prime' among pejoratives he attributes to the other side. Evidently his mastery of E-Prime does not prevent his begging a question."

If we should eliminate the verb "to be" from the English language, other, more subtle (and difficult to detect) ways of expressing identity may increase. As even the advocates of E-Prime admit, the is-of-identity belongs as an element to a larger set of problems called, "the confusion of the orders of abstraction," and so eliminating the verb "to be" from the language does not necessarily eliminate identity from the nervous system. For example, in response to something that I had written, Mr. Bourland said, "And where did you get that nonsense about 'expedient'?"(4) I see little difference between identifying something strongly as "that nonsense," and saying, "It is nonsense," except that the "is" expression seems easier to detect.

Mr. Bourland said that my Argument 8 discusses "trivial examples of how to live with use III."(5) What is the difference between denigrating someone's arguments as "trivial," and saying, "They are trivial"? One dissimilarity might be that, in the E-Prime case, we have no trip-word (is) to alert us to a possible identification.

So far, I have not discovered anything in the attitude of the E-Prime advocates toward their own assumptions (and toward criticisms of E-Prime) that would lead me to conclude that their approach to general semantics works better than any other.

In their enthusiasm for E-Prime, it seems quite possible that even experienced general semanticists may come to slight the training methods that have served us so well in the past. If so, one wonders whether or not novices introduced to general semantics through E-Prime will also neglect them. Actually, I regard that as highly likely, considering that some of the core training phrases -- for example, "The word is not the thing," and ["Smith. sub. 1] is not [Smith. sub. 2] is not [Smith. sub. 3,]" and so on -- are not even permitted in E-Prime.

General semantics were built on the pillars of negative premises. The "is not" statement has served for sixty years as the linchpin for a whole system. Remember "The map is not the territory"? Unlike E-Prime, which targets only identities expressed with the "to be" verb, "is not" works against identity in general, no matter how it is expressed. The strength of the "is not" statement derviers from its ability to provoke an "emotional" response, and thus affect the nervous system. Because of its strong, effective qualities, the "is not" statement has been assigned a major role in retraining our semantic reactions with the structural differential (Korzybski's physical model of the abstracting process). It is also featured prominently in dating, e.g., [Smith. sup. 1992. sub. 1] is not [Smith. sup. 1993. sub. 1]. Losing that particular ability to draw a simple and sharp distinction between different individuals, different times, different orders of abstractions, ect., may give us pause. At the very least, it should alert us to the possibility that, far from enchancing Korzybski's system, E-Prime undermines it.

I could see many E-Prime novices largely ignoring the fundamental writings of general semantics; and even if they did read them, it would be quite difficult for them to take those works seriously, it seems to me. Readers of Irving Lee, for example, might find his use of "is" distracting.

I infer that some new members of the Society lose some of their interest in ETC., when they discover that it includes few articles written in E-Prime. Would such persons be willing to read Science and Sanity with the respect and diligence that real learning requires?

Dismissive attitudes toward Korzybski are encouraged by the E-P Prime proponents when they say that he spoke against certain of the "is" language forms but at the same time used them in his writings.

Korzybski based his system explicitly on the denial of identity, not on the removal of "is" from the language. He claimed to have developed techniques that, if applied, would effectively eliminate identity through consciousness of abstracting. To him, identity was not just a language problem, but an "over-emotional" generalization of the human nervous system. In the introductions to the second and third editions of Science and Sanity (written years after the book proper) he clarified his position, saying, "I must stress again that this difficulty [orientation by intensional definition rather than extensional facts] is not inherent in our language as such, but depends exclusively on out attitude toward the use of language."(6) (The emphasized words are his.) Korzybski's solutions were based on "changing not the language, but the structure of the language, achieved by the habitual use of the extensional devices in our evaluational reactions."(7) Note that he said, "in our evaluation reactions," not "in our speech."

Take indexing -- as in [lawyers sub.1] is not [lawyer sub.2] is not [lawyers sub. 3], for example. As indexing becomes an habitual and integral part of our reaxtions, a marked change takes place in our response to "is". Identification involves what Korzybski called "affective pressure," as when you have a generalized dislike of lawyers, and you say that someone is "that lawyer." Absent that pressure -- and general semantics methods such as indexing consistently train against it -- where do we find the identification?

When someone well-trained in general semantics says, "John is a lawyer," she is not likely to over-associate the person with the word (that is, with what the word "lawyer" means to her), because "all" of her general semantics reading and training have warned her and drilled her against such a reaction.

Yes, the is-of-identity and predication have their dangers; but, to date, no one has shown that general semantics does not perform well as an antidote against those dangers.

Without E-Prime, a host of tools are available to the general semanticist to drill the nervous system against identification. We even have the option of rewarding is-of-identity and predication statements, an option that has long been a general-semantivs tradition. Contrary to what many novices may believe, the practice of wording certain sentences to avoid those types of statements did not originate with the E-Prime movement. One can approve of that practice, but oppose E-Prime, just as one can approve of the idea of attaching a date to certain statements, but oppose the idea of dating every statement.

If the idea of dating all of our statement were defined as "The English language dated"; and if it were called "E, sub-D" ([E.sub.D]); and if people began to describe the general-semantics practice of dating as "writing in [E.sub.D], we could hardly be blamed for objecting to it.

Wording certain of our sentences to more closely reflect the relational, structural realities of situations has always been part of general semantics; but eliminating even structurally correct instances of the verb "to be" -- as E-Prime surely does -- has not. We have every justification for opposing the adoption of E-Prime as the name for rewording structurally limited or faulty statements. Where is the structural error in saying, "I am going to the store"?

If we could identify one element that distinguishes the sciences from the other, less successful forms of human endeavor, we might point to the insistence in science on the strict, rigorous formulation of basic procedures. Yet, E-Prime fails to live up to that standard. It targets the verb "to be" as the problem, when the known [fact.sup.1993] indicate that the problem occurs with only certain forms of the verb "to be." Are we going to allow a map into our system that we know does not fit the territory? E-Prime should have been defined as "the English language without the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of prediction." Then its advocates could have said, "To achieve E-Prime, you may find it necessary to eliminate even seemingly benign forms of the verb 'to be' from your language." That would have been consistent with the known facts, and no one would have objected to the definition of E-Prime on formulational grounds, at least.

Perhaps the general-semantics community shoudl consider finding a more fitting term of the practice of wording sentences to eliminate the is-of-identity or predication; otherwise "E-Prime" will become the de-facto name.

William Dallmann has proposed the term "[E-Prime.sub.mod]."(8) I regard that suggestion as appealing, but I think a more appropriate name could be found because the notion of avoiding certain is-of-identity and predication statements arose prior to and independent of E-Prime. [E-Prime.sub.mod] has the drawback that one must first define E-Prime before explaining [E-Prime.sub.mod].

I nominate a term suggested by Charlotte Read -- the term "rewarding" -- defined as, "the practice of wording or rewording one or more sentences to avoid the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication in the English language." Rewording should fit nicely with the other extensional devices, e.g., "indexing, dating, rewording"; and since, like "indexing" and "dating", "rewarding" says what it does, students of general semantics should find the name easy to understand. As with the other extensional devices, rewording coudl be used as much or as little as one desired. But of course, students would be encouraged to reword their more pernicious is-of-identity and predication statements, just as they are encouraged to date or index other statements. The prohibition against "all" uses of "to be" could be retained as a rewording exercise, to be used in the classroom, and for individual practice on one's own, if desired. (The vast majority of E-Prime devotees seem to use it only as an exercise anyway. As of the date of this writing, I know of only five persons who claim to both speak and write in it consistently. As I see it, the so-called lesser forms of E-Prime are not "E-Prime by its own definition.)

Of course, outside of general semantics, nothing would prevent individuals from adopting the practices of E-Prime, just as nothing prevents them from using Zen meditation or any other technique.

By adopting rewording as an extensional device, we could accomplish most of the laudable goals of E-Prime, and allow a more flexible approach to the problems of "is," while maintaining the integrity of our discipline.

Finally, let me say that, although I have quite a few objections to E-Prime as a formulation, I have even more objections to its as a movement. Three things in particular come to mind. One has to do with the tendency of E-Prime promoters to add items willy-nilly to the agenda of general semantics, such as opposing the use of the passive voice, without the long period of review and debate which should precede the adoption of new items. Novices are left with the impression that these things are basic tenets of general semantics, which is not the case. The second objection has to do with the inclination to display a strongly disparaging attitude toward any use of the verb "to be" by others, a penchant that seems reminiscent of witch-hunting. The third objection is the tendency to make sweeping, unverified claims about the benefits of eliminating the verb "to be" entirely from English, e.g., that it improves one's writing. (For arguments against that claim, see note 9.) None of these propensities is consistent with a discipline grounded in science, in my view.

For these and other reasons, I hope that the Society will cease to promote E-Prime; otherwise, these problems, and the divisiveness they have engendered, will continue (I predict) to plague our discipline indefinitely. Unlike any other "extensional device," E-Prime tends to seize the minds of certain people so strongly that general semantics itself gets relegated to the sidelines. Apparently, some writers not think that the major purpose of general semantics is to eliminate the verb "to be" from the English language. Should we retain E-Prime, we can expect such distorted interpretations is isolate general semantics further from the educational mainstream.


(1.) James D. French, "The Top Ten Arguments Against E-Prime," ETC., 49 No. 2 (1992), 175-179.

(2.) D. David Bourland, Jr., "E-Prime and Un-Sanity," ETC., 49 No. 2 (1992), 213-223.

(3.) I thought that the following argument was too technical for the body of my paper, and so I have put it here in the reference section:

In my original essay I pointed out that the language called "mathematics" facilitates time-binding. Mathematics relies heavily on the notions of equivalence and equality, notions that, to me, seem inherent in some uses of the verb "to be." Mr. Bourland reminded me that the equals sign translates into "equals" in English, not "is"; but I was not asserting that the equals sign means "is" -- rather my point was that the equals sign in mathematics, and the "to be" verb in English, perform a similar logical function. When we say that 9 = 3 X 3, we are logically asserting that the symbol "9" and the symbols "3 X 3" denote the same number; similarly, when we say, "John Jones is that professor," we are logically asserting that the words "John Jones" and "that professor" denote the same person (in that particular context). Symmetrical mathematical relations are characterized by the fact that the order in which the symbols are presented does not matter; we can say, "9 = 3 X 3," or we can say, "3 X 3 = 9." Similarly, in English, if we say, "John Jones is that professor," we can say, "That professor is John Jones." As Mr. Bourland pointed out, some teachers of mathematics occasionally substitute "is" for "equals," as in "4 plus 2 is 6." The fact that they can do that are the mathematics still works confirms my point that the two symbols perform equivalent logical functions.

Mr. Bourland says that even the slowest student can see that "1/2" is not "2/4," but surely even the slowest student can be made to understand that the intention of the phrase "1/2 is 2/4" is not to say that the symbol "1/2" is the symbol "2/4," but rather that the symbols "1/2" and "24" denote the same number. When we say, "John Jones is that professor," we do not intend, and few would take it to mean, that the words "John Jones" are the words "that professor."

None of these arguments should be understood to mean that I think it is the "same thing" to substitute "is" for "equals" in the teaching of mathematics, or that I advocate doing it. I do not, or course.

Given that the verb "to be" in English performs a similar logical function to the equals sign in mathematics, and given that the equals sign appears fundamental to mathematics -- a language that clearly facilitates rapid time-binding -- there may exist considerable benefits for humankind in the continued use of the verb "to be." None of that is to deny the considerable dangers associated with the naive use of "to be" as an identification term, of course, as pointed out by Korzybski and others.

(4.) D. David Bourland, Jr., "E-Prime and Un-Sanity," ETC., 49 No. 2 (1992), p. 219.

(5.) Ibid, p. 217.

(6.) Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 4th Ed. 1958, p. liii. International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company, Lakeville, CT.

(7.) Ibid. p. xxii. His emphasis. The structure of the language is changed at the system level by adopting a new methodology and a new terminology as permanent habits. The language of orders of abstractions, for example, has ordinal and relational (structural) implications different from the terminology of the Aristotelian system. But when we adopt the new terms, and when we use the extensional devices we do so within the English language, which remains essentially untouched.

(8.) William Dallmann, "Is Is Not Is Is Not Is," ETC., 49 No. 2 (1992), p. 134.

(9.) E-Prime advocates attempt to show, by citing selected examples, that substituting another verb for the verb "to be" improves one's writing. However, no attempts are made to improve the examples while occasionally retaining forms of the verb "to be," and then contrasting those sentences with the E-Prime versions. Furthermore, the E-Prime versions go far beyond simple substitutions. For example, a phrase having nothing to do with the verb "to be" -- "I believe that your involving other people made the situation much worse" -- is improved to say, "I believe that involving other people with your problems made the situation much worse." [This illustration is taken from Elaine C. Johnson's paper, "Discovering E-Prime," published in ETC., 45, No. 2 (1988)] Because individual words, short phrases, and entire sentences are altered in many of the samples, often in ways not directly related to eliminating the verb "to be," the evidence appears questionable, to say the least.

Even if more rigor were applied in such cases, the attempt to prove a general proposition by inductive methods (selected examples) has an uneven record at best. Many science-oriented persons would consider that form of proof unacceptable.

Besides, we have no reliable, scientific means to prefer one person's subjective evaluation over that of another educated person. Suppose someone says, "It does not seem better to me"? Then what?

I do not think that the sentence, "I see rain falling," is necessarily superior to "I am looking at the rainfall," for example. (Nor do I think that the latter sentence is more "static" because it contains a form of that "static" verb "to be.")

Even when we prefer a revised sentence without "to be" to the "to be" version, the E-Prime rule cannot claim an essential role in that result, because the exact same revised sentence could have come about as a result of a completely different rule, a rule such as, "Cut back on your use of 'to be.'"

A writing paradigm that says, "Never use the verb "to be,'" seems inconsistent with the flexibility sometimes required of effective writing. Consider these two writing examples that critics have ranked with the finest in the language: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."; "To be or not to be: that is the question." Both prominently feature forms of the verb "to be." Had Dickens and Shakespeare written those sentences in E-Prime, I seriously doubt that the E-Prime versions would have become as widely quoted or esteemed as the "to be" passages are today.

Obviously, for any given sentence, there are scores if not hundreds of ways to word it differently; so we should not be surprised that we can often find alternatives that we like better (in our personal judgment). Any rule that forced us to alter our writing, such as "never use the word 'and,'" could lead us to alternatives that we might prefer. But most f the improvement, if any, would come from working harder at seeking and discarding alternatives until a more pleasing one was found, not from eliminating a word like "and" from our language.

This much should be clear: I am not arguing that E-Prime fails to improve one's writing. I am saying that the testimony, examples, and arguments used by advocates to show that E-Prime improves one's writing do not meet established standards fo scientific verification, and so they carry no weight in a science-based discipline. General semantics is not an English class, and lowering our standards to fit what may pass for evidence in an English class violates one of the goals of our system, the goal of bringing scientific standards of evaluation into our lives.
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Author:French, James D.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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