E-Prime, briefly: a lawyer's experiment with writing in E-Prime.
I WORK as a lawyer. That means I work as a professional communicator. More precisely, I work as an appellate lawyer. That means I do the majority of my professional communicating in writing, mainly in documents filed in court.
Lawyers typically do not characterize themselves as professional communicators. If you ask most lawyers what they do at work, you will often receive a casually superficial answer, something along these lines: "Well, I'm a problem-solver. I solve my clients' problems."
But lawyers actually possess a deeper understanding of their work and how they do it. Lawyers spend an enormous percentage of their time writing or speaking to or on behalf of their clients. Because of that fact of professional life, most lawyers (contrary to the popular view) actually understand the importance of well-developed communication skills in getting the work of a lawyer done efficiently and effectively. If distilled and articulated, that understanding would embrace this view: "My clients have problems, and my clients want me to solve those problems. I use my communication skills to help me understand those problems, to help my clients better understand those problems, to help others understand my clients' problems, and, ultimately, to help my clients solve their problems."
Still, despite individual lawyer's recognition of the importance of those skills, lawyers as a class seem immune to improving them, especially written communication skills. Lawyers, of course, have a reputation for writing poorly. Mostly, we deserve the rap. Crummy writing pervades the profession --in simple letters to clients, in contracts, in briefs filed in court, in opinions written by judges. None of us intends to write poorly, but the examples we see in our daily practices reinforce bad writing. Perhaps most importantly, these examples imply that bad writing does not carry with it any significant professional stigma.
Despite these discouraging influences (or, maybe, because of them), some lawyers consciously seek to improve their written communication skills. We can find support in various law-oriented organizations, such as Clarity and Scribes, that focus on the profession's need for sound written-communication skills and that publish journals designed, at least in part, to help lawyers write better. Mostly, though, lawyers who seek to improve their writing skills must do so on their own and confront each writing assignment as an opportunity for improvement.
Which brings me to the purpose of this article: calling attention to E-Prime, a little-known writing technique I believe has improved my legal writing. For those not familiar with E-Prime, the term refers to a subset of English that eschews any form of the verb "to be" (is, are, am, was, were, be, been, being, etc.). According to David Bourland, credited with inventing E-Prime (1), "[t]he name comes from the equation E' = E-e, where E represents the words of the English language, and e represents the inflected forms of 'to be.'" (2)
I first encountered E-Prime in 1992 when I read Cullen Murphy's column in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Initially, eliminating "to be" from my writing struck me as unworkable and as, probably, an overly time-consuming task. But the idea appealed to me for several reasons. Foremost, the passive voice in writing, epitomized by the use of forms of "to be," usually bores me as a reader, and I did not want to write materials--even legal briefs--that bored me or my readers. In addition, by the time I read Murphy's article, my wife and I had written two editions of a textbook on legal research (and knew we would write a third), had written a couple of fairly lengthy articles for a professional journal, and had written a substantial portion of another book (on computer-assisted legal research). The more we wrote, the more we found ourselves consciously attempting to minimize--if not fully eliminate--passive constructions; E-Prime looked like a useful extension of that progression. Finally, as a lawyer, I did not want to write like most lawyers (or judges), whose writing typically makes heavy use of forms of "to be."
Despite my interest in E-Prime as a writing technique, the obstacles seemed daunting. According to Cullen Murphy, when Bourland wrote his original article about E-Prime, the experience left him with "'an intermittent, but severe, headache which lasted for about a week.'" Because English-language communication relies so heavily on "to be" constructions, removing them from the written form struck me as requiring more time and dedication than I thought I could muster, then or in the foreseeable future. So, I mentally parked the idea and left it hibernating for several years.
In August 1999, after having served a stint as a government lawyer at the county level, I returned to the Wisconsin Department of Justice as an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals unit. With my return to appellate litigation, I began considering more systematically how I might improve my writing. E-Prime awoke and presented itself again, and I decided to use this opportunity to find out whether the technique would work. In late 1999, for the first time, I wrote an appellate brief in E-Prime. (An example of an appellate brief written in E-Prime appears with an earlier version of this article published in Clarity No. 48, December 2002. In the case in which I filed this brief, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant's conviction for first-degree reckless homicide.)
I did not immediately adopt the technique wholesale; for me, dropping "to be" from my writing style took some easing into. But within a few weeks, I had written a complete brief in E-Prime: except for quotations that contained "to be" in some form, I had eliminated "to be" from my brief. Now, I routinely write my briefs in E-Prime.
I think E-Prime has helped me improve my writing. In particular, I think E-Prime has made my writing clearer by forcing me to pay more attention than usual to ensuring that the reader will not have to guess who did what to whom. Eliminating "to be" made me more aware of sources of ambiguity and rhetorical flabbiness, such as the indefinite or ambiguous "it" that maintains a weed-like presence in much legal writing. (3) Ultimately, I believe E-Prime has made my writing more inviting to read because a writing style with a less passive voice tends to encourage the reader to keep reading--something I certainly want the appellate judges to do. I don't know that I can demonstrate an improvement in any quantitative way; perhaps the judges and lawyers who read my briefs would even disagree that my writing has improved. But having compared briefs I wrote just a few years ago with the briefs I've written since adopting E-Prime, I sense that my writing works better now than it did then.
I have drawn several lessons from making the transition to E-Prime, and they might prove helpful to someone wondering whether to make a similar shift.
First, developing an E-Prime writing style doesn't have to take a lot of time, nor need it prove as painful as the experience did for Bourland. In my case, a predisposition to avoiding passive writing probably helped; shifting to an E-Prime style felt more like sculpting my existing style with a chisel than blasting it apart with dynamite. But even for those who have never thought much about how passive constructions can affect a writing style and a reader's interest, I think the transition can, with a bit of discipline, take place in just a matter of weeks.
Second, E-Prime can yield noticeable improvements in the clarity of writing. In general, I think using E-Prime has reduced the length of my sentences. The reduction results, I believe, because E-Prime first leads an author to write in a more active voice. In turn, the more active voice induces a writer to minimize the number of words that convey the action. Facing fewer words in a sentence, the reader spends less time and effort untangling--and perhaps misinterpreting--the sentence. Hence, greater clarity.
But even for writers whose styles tend toward long sentences, E-Prime can, I believe, improve the clarity of those sentences. E-Prime encourages the writer to focus on and remove ambiguity, a pursuit that sharpens the communication. Consequently, longer sentences written in E-Prime don't require as much untangling as sentences of comparable length written in standard English. As a result, the length of the E-Prime sentence recedes in significance as a factor causing ambiguity. E-Prime thus allows a writer greater flexibility to create relatively complex sentences that remain clear and in which the reader will not likely get lost due to their length.
Third, E-Prime does not cure all writing defects. In the end, a writer using E-Prime still needs a sound grasp of the things that make good writing work: a message worth communicating, a sensible organization for the piece, adherence to generally accepted principles of grammar and syntax, an understanding of the target audience, proper spelling, and so on. E-Prime complements these elements of good writing, building on whatever foundation of writing skills already exists; the stronger the foundation, the better E-Prime will serve the writer and the reader.
A writer who lacks strong writing skills can still benefit from experimenting with E-Prime, however. The effort to write in E-Prime can bring writing weaknesses into focus; for a writer seeking to build sound writing skills, identifying weaknesses begins the journey toward improvement. For example, E-Prime draws the writer's attention to issues of agency and causation--who did what to whom. This focus, in turn, leads a writer to select words that accurately and actively convey agency and causation. This dynamic also guides the writer to consider more critically the structure of a piece, leading in turn to greater care in arranging sentences and paragraphs to keep the structure intact.
Fourth, I have found E-Prime helps me analyze and better understand others' writings. When I read a court decision or another lawyer's brief, I often find myself mentally rewriting passages in E-Prime. This exercise--which now occurs almost effortlessly--can clarify for me the point the writer wants to make, and can confirm whether the writer even has point.
Fifth, although I regard E-Prime as a useful technique for writing legal briefs, I don't use E-Prime for everything I write; I don't regard myself as a hard-core acolyte.(4) In some settings, E-Prim strikes me as not yielding any significant benefit. When corresponding with friends via short notes or e-mail (to take two examples), I don't make an effort to write in E-Prime. Rather, I tend to scale my use: the more formal or substantive the writing, the more I make an effort to write in E-Prime; the less formal or substantive, the less I try.
In addition, I doubt E-Prime will work well for some kinds of writing. Poetry strikes me as an unlikely candidate for an exclusively E-Prime writing style. (5) Moreover, I have difficulty imagining some expressions recast in E-Prime:
"To be or not to be" (Shakespeare)
"I think, therefore I am" (Descartes)
"And that's the way it is" (Walter Cronkite)
"Sean Connery is James Bond" (movie advertising)
"And that's the truth" (Edith Ann, a Lily Tomlin character)
"It depends on what your definition of 'is' is" (President Bill Clinton)
These examples would likely lose much of their impact if converted to E-Prime analogs. "Sean Connery performs as James Bond"? Doesn't work for me.
Much legal writing, however, would undoubtedly benefit from a dose of E-Prime. Legal briefs, contracts, judicial opinions, statutes, administrative rules and regulations, jury instructions, prospectuses--all would serve their purposes better, I believe, if their authors tried the E-Prime route to clarity. In a society that prides itself on the rule of law and insists on public adherence to legal rules, a little headache seems a de minimis price to pay for making legal writing clearer.
(1.) Cullen Murphy, "'To Be' in Their Bonnets: A Matter of Semantics," The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1992, p.l8, reprinted in More E-Prime: To Be or Not II, pp.25, 28 (Paul Dennithorne Johnston, D. David Bourland, Jr. & Jeremy Klein, eds., 1994) (also available online at http://www.theatlantic.conffissues/92feb/murphy.htm (Last visited September 13, 2003) (archived web page on file with the author)).
(2.) D. David Boorland, Jr., "To Be or Not To Be: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking," ETC." A Review of General Semantics, vol. 46, no. 3, p.202 (1989), reprinted in To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, p.101 (D. David Bourland, Jr. & Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds., 1991) (also available online at http://www.general semanties.org/Articles/TOBECRIT.HTM (Last visited September 13, 2003) (archived web page on file with the author)). Bourland writes that "[c]ritical thinkers have struggled with the semantic consequences of the verb 'to be' for hundreds of years," id at p.103, identifying Thomas Hobbes, Betrand Russell Alfred North Whitehead, and George Santayana as among those who have wrestled with the verb, id.
(3.) E-Prime alone does not automatically eliminate ambiguity. For example, changing "mistakes were made" to "mistakes happened" does not get the writer (or reader) any closer to identifying the person who committed the mistakes. To eliminate ambiguity, a writer must actively seek out ambiguities end get rid of them, in this case, by naming the actor or agent ("Smith made mistakes"). In my experience, E-Prime makes that task easier.
(4.) E-Prime has generated--and will undoubtedly continue to generate--significant disagreement about its utility. For anyone interested in an array of opinions about E-Prime, the International Society for General Semantics, http://www.generalsemantics.orgo publishes three anthologies of articles about E-Prime: To Be or Not, supra note 2; More E-Prime, supra note 1; and E-Prime 111! A Third Anthology (D. David Bourland, Jr. & Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds., 1997). For an example of ambivalence about E-Prime, see Charles T. Low, "E-Prime--A Layman's Personal Perspective," at http://www.ctlow.ce/E-Prime/E-Prime.btml (last visited September 13, 2003) (archived web page on file with the author).
(5.) But see Risa Kaparo, "Poetry and E-Prime: Some Preliminary Thoughts," in More E-Prime, supra note 1, at p.85.
CHRISTOPHER G. WREN *
* Christopher G. Wren, an Assistant Attorney General with the Criminal Appeals Unit, Wisconsin Department of Justice, notes: "I greatly appreciate the thoughtful comments and suggestions of my wife and frequent writing collaborator, Jill Robinson Wren, a lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin. In my writing, as in my marriage, I accept most of them, reject a few, and welcome all. Of course, she does not bear any responsibility for any errors in this piece; nor does my employer, the Wisconsin Department of Justice, nor my colleagues there. Also, no one should construe anything in this article as representing the views of the Department or my departmental colleagues." An earlier version of this paper appeared in Clarity No. 48 (December 2002), the journal of Clarity (http://www.clarity-intemational.net), an international association promoting plain legal language. Copyright [c] 2003 Christopher G. Wren.
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|Author:||Wren, Christopher G.|
|Publication:||ETC.: A Review of General Semantics|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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