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E-Prime, E-Choice, E-Chosen.

E-PRIME OR E-CHOICE "is" a choice. I could have written "appears as a choice" but that would have detracted from my point. A point isomorphic with Emory Menefee's argument ("E-Prime or E-Choice," ETC., Summer 1991) that not all identificational verbs "to be" should be eliminated from our discourse. I agree with Menefee's concern that we should become conscious of when to use and when not to use identificational verbs. Such consciousness of expressive devices and rhetorical uses (of abstracting) contrasts with the straightforward involuntary rejection of all identificational verbs under the regime of E-Prime.

But how much choice do we really have in eliminating identification and identity from our expressions, and should we try and erase them anyhow? I know these questions are heresy to E-Primers, but I suggest they should be asked as a matter of course in examining this "thing called "language." Should we try for instance, to do away with identities produced by nouns? This has been the argument by C. A. Hilgartner (General Semantics Bulletin No 44/45), in "Some Traditional Assumings Underlying Western Indo-European Languages." In this paper Hilgartner concludes that noun phrases as well as verb phrases produce identity through objectification. His remedy: where possible make nouns into verbs by adding the suffix "ing," thus "noun" is replaced by "nouning" and "verb" by "verbing" and so on.

Hilgartner's ascetic approach incorporates the elimination of identificational verbs as well as an attempt to dispose of objectifying nouns. But what was the result? Did Hilgartner manage to eliminate identity from his own writing? The answer is clearly no. For pages he carefully avoided identities produced by the verb "to be" and most nouns, but Hilgartner nevertheless wrote, as all E-Primers have to write, by using the first person singular pronoun. Reflection for a moment on the semantics of pronouns will be enough to make most readers aware that every pronoun produces an identity of nonverbal referent and symbol. "I," "me," "you," "she," "it," "him," "her," "we," "us," "they," "them," "this" are pronounal identities. One can write in E-Prime or express oneself by adding "ing" to the end of nouns, but one cannot write in these styles and not use pronouns. It is quite impossible and I challenge anyone to try it.

We could go further than pronouns and look at identities produced by other aspects of grammar. For instance, what about the identities produced by adjectives of quality? Should we not try for a semantic hygiene that eliminates such adjectival identities as "hot," "cold," "clever," "absurd," "beauty," "absent," "eternal," et cetera? Such a style which attempts to eliminate these may be possible (although I doubt it) but even if we did succeed in erasing these terms from our expressions it would be rather dull prose.

The point I wish to make here is that the semantic construction of identity is a basic part of the verb "to be" then it is produced by nouns, pronouns, and adjectives as well as other grammatical forms. In other words, I discovered, as Hilgartner did, the impossibility of expressing myself without using identities. Therefore to believe that we should attempt to simply eliminate identity from our expressions, as E-Primers endeavor so to do, appears a futile exercise. I would go further and suggest that in particular, the use of the verb "to be" is in many circumstances an important generic classificational and differential device. For instance, where is the semantic difficulty in saying, "that is a startling and not a blackbird," or "flour is an ingredient of bread"?

Rather than attempting the impossible perhaps our semantic concerns should be focused on the manner in which identities can combine together to produce the pernicious identification of mythologised and reified discourses. I refer here to such powerful meanings as found in the serious and harmful use of stereotyping in the formulaic narrative, film, or television story or in the political report that appears as an "objective" piece of journalism or in the partisan voice of censorship disguised as a patriotic call against un-American or un-Australian activity, or in the many other mythologised discourses in contemporary society. The power of these discourses comes, not from any single identity produced by the verb "to be." Rather persuasion comes from the combinations of identities (produced by a variety off grammatical constructions) which are fused into an overall pattern of identification: a "reality" made as a seamless web of meaning producing a sense of "the way things are."

Detecting patterns of identification by looking at sentence construction is not easy but some of the semantic hallmarks of discourses of power can be found in such telltale phrases as the following:

(1) The agent-less phrase. This is a common device favored particularly in television and news reports, in academic writing as well as biblical texts. Here the authors delete themselves from their expressions by the expedient of never using first person singular pronouns. In this manner, omnipotence, authority, and a sense of truth is created. The missing identity in these cases is transformed by the semantic identification of expression with author into an "isness" of authority and power. Taken together with the use of identificational verbs the "agent-less phrase" is a powerful semantic building block for myth and propaganda.

(2) Deletion of the actor. In this device the cause of the process referred to is deleted. For example, "Jerry Brown was accused by Clinton of buying votes" is changed to "Jerry Brown was accused of buying votes" or even "Jerry Brown bought votes." The effect of this deletion is to increase the authority and power of the expression by reducing the qualification inherent in an explicit reference to an actor. Once again the deletion produces an identification, this time of actor and process. When this deletion combines with identificational verbs the effect is powerful and persuasive meaning.

(3) Collapsing participants into a single model. This is a form often used in news reports, for example "workers picketing the hospital" is collapsed into "picketing," or "Mr. Freeman delivers food" in collapsed into "food deliveries." The semantic effect of such collapsing is to reify the process by identifying participants and causes of actions with the process. In this sense at least three identities are identified together as one.

(4) Decontextualisation. This represents a major mythological device and it functions under several conditions. For example, it comes about when an author omits the social and generic context of their expressions. This omission is common to fiction, particularly to traditional realist narratives, but this erasure is also common to the traditions of science and religion. For example, the so called "Laws of Nature" are often decontextualised to the extent that these "Laws" are described as if they were written in cement by non-human scientific or religious hands. The context omitted from these "Laws" is the social and linguistic community which had agreed to these principles and which constructed them in the first place. Decontextualisation can also function when a proposition is expressed so that it omits its own classificational context. Examples of decontextualised propositions are the so called universal logic found in truth tables and universal classifications such as "she is mad." The semantic affects of decontextualisation are universalism, (the expression applies universally throughout time and space), and a sense of the a-political, a-social, and a historical, (the expression applies universally throughout time and space), and a sense of the a-political, a-social, and a-historical, (the expression appears innocent of all vested interests and socio-historical contexts). With decontextualisation a series of identities are combined together by way of identifying the author, the generic framework, the historical and social setting with the rhetorical devices of the expression itself so that together these different identities make for a single unified totality of meaning.

In each of these four semantic building blocks (and there are many others) several identities have been combined together into what appears often as a singleness of meaning. The process of combining various identities is itself one of identification. Identification in thise sense is the process of unities building on unities to form larger totalities. From this perspective, myth and propaganda represent the semantic process of combination in which a series of identities (embedded in phrases) combine into larger and more persuasive patterns of identification (embedded in sentences). These large patterns of identifications are pernicious for they block enlightened and critical communication and detached responses to communication.

In following Emory Menefee's argument for E-Choice, I would submit that the attempt to rid our expressions of the identity produced by the verb "to be" has marginal semantic significance. As it appears impossible to eliminate identity in its varying forms from language and still have language, we used. The problem, as I see it, is one of hierarchy rather than of type: as a basic unit of language, identity is fine when it produces relatively discrete classifications. Identity becomes a problem however, when through the use of rhetorical devices a variety of them are welded together forming complexes of meaning that appear indivisible. I have therefore argued that rather than E-Prime our E-Choice should be to eliminate the large patterns of identification which occur in reified and mythological discourses.
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Author:Lohrey, Andrew
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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