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A Review of to be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology.

As TECHNICAL WRITERS, we continually strive for clarity. An accurate explanation of how a software program functions enables the user to employ it more effectively. We try to show the user what it does by using descriptive verbs; in this context, most of us have discovered that verbs of "being" muddle the explanation, especially in the passive voice. E-Prime, a system of writing without the verb "to be," requires active voice and thus shows the true relationships between subjects and objects.

For example, a typical instruction in a software manual might read --

If a directory containing K9 database files is specified, the following message will be displayed: "If you wish the files to be converted, press any key to continue. Press Ctrl/Break to exit and the files will not be converted."

Rewritten into E-Prime, this instruction would read:

If you specify a directory containing database files, the K9 screen displays this message: "To convert the files, press any key. To prevent file conversion, press Ctrl/Break."

Not only does the E-Prime instruction more clearly explain the relationship between the user's actions and the program's function, it also results in a 30 percent reduction in verbiage.

This anthology describes the E-Prime system of writing, which consists of a more descriptive derivative of English that brings the user back to the level of first-person experience. One of the book's twelve essays defines E-Prime as --

E[minutes] = E - e

where E represents the whole of the English language, e represents the linguistic element "to be" with all of its inflectional forms, and the E[minutes] represents a subset of English minus verbs of being. Bourland coined the term E-Prime in the 1960s, though he had used the concept is his own writing since 1949.

Linguists estimate that one English sentence is two employs some form of the verb "to be" and most paragraphs have at least a dozen. The subtraction of "to be" influences the sentence structures we choose -- no passive voice, less use of the subjunctive mood, and fewer participial usages. Actors re-enter the picture. To illustrate, "If I were king of the forest..." would become "As king of the forest, I..." "Being queen for a day, she..." would require recasting as "Crowned queen for a day, she..."

On the downside, however, eliminating all forms of "to be" results in loss of the present progressive. In E-Prime you cannot say "it is raining" and the alternatives "it rains" or "it continues to rain" sound awkward.

To Be or Not consists of three parts. Part 1, "E-Prime in Action," includes introductory essays written by two English teachers after they discovered E-Prime and got rid of the "to be" crutch. An essay by Paul Dennithorne Johnston presents us with his personal awakening to semantics.

Part 2, "Epistemological Foundations of E-Prime," includes essays on writing in E-Prime, Is-less grammars, and using E-Prime as a tool for critical thinking.

Part 3, "Further Applications of E-Prime," contains a short story, demonstrating the use of E-Prime in creative writing, and a linguistics thesis, showing its application to scholarly works.

In "Getting Rid of the To Be Crutch," Ruth S. Ralph describes the concepts of general semantics:

[Alfred] Korzybski believed that the verb to be causes serious communication disturbances and other psychological problems for modern man [sic]. In his book Science and Sanity, Korzybski referred to these problems as the "is of predication and the "is of identity." In both, he blamed the verb to be for misleading people into making untrue and unwarranted statements...

A pair of common enough sentence structures employ to be to tempt man [sic] into mistaken value judgments. Korzybski called the Subject-Linking Verb-Adjective sentence pattern the "is of predication" and the Subject-Linking Verb-Noun sentence pattern the "is of identity."

A sentence like "Robert is stupid" exemplifies the first, while "Marcia is a genius" demonstrates the second...

"For example," he [Bourland[ continues, "in a case where most people might judge themselves harshly by saying, 'I'm no good at math,' I would advise them to say instead, 'I got poor grades in sixth grade arithmetic,' or 'I did better in other subjects than I did in math.'"

According to David Bourland, "Using E-Prime can improve a person's outlook on life. Once you realize that every time you say is you tell a lie, you begin to think less about a thing or person's 'identity' and more about its function.

By "telling a lie" Ms. Ralph means that although certain "to be" statements tell facts (i.e., Mr. Thompson is my boss), they still prevaricate in that the sentence directs our attention away from all the other aspects of Mr. Thompson's personality. It makes us believe that Mr. Thompson's "bossness" takes precedence over anything else about him.

Most "to be" statements have the appearance of fact because the linking verb functions as a fulcram or "equal" sign (i.e., Mr. Thompson = boss; Robert = stupid). But such "to be" statements do not distinguish verifiable fact (Mr. Thompson is my boss) from the speaker's opinion (Robert is stupid).

Is-less grammars discourage labeling (Joan is smart; Cleve is smart) and encourage fact-reporting (Joan makes $500,000 a year; Cleve scored 160 on an I.Q. test).

One of the best works in this anthology, "Coping with Semantic Problems in Systems Development" by Karen L. Ruskin, describes some of the benefits that ensued from persistently using E-Prime in the development of a large, complex, real-time computer system. This essay will grab the attention of software documenters.

Because one essayist contributed five articles to the anthology, some examples appear more than once and seem somewhat redundant. Most of the contributors to this anthology had previously published their essays in professional journals, and many included footnotes and references to supplement their research. Lack of an index did not detract from the book's usability.

Overall, this anthology introduces a dynamic concept that technical writers may adopt to improve clarity and precision.
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Author:Whinnery, Retta West
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:988
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