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Too far?

1. Introduction

IN THE LIST of my peak intellectual life experiences I would surely have to include the following three: (i) During Korzybski's last summer seminar (August, 1949), at Great Barington, Mass., and at this last winter seminar (Christmas, 1949), at Sharon, Conn., I had the honor of sitting on the same platform with him as his "recording student," taking notes for him to go over to see what he had said, to keep him, as he put it, "from getting lost in the footnotes." How would you like for Korzybski to study carefully your notes of a seminar on general semantics? (ii) At that same summer seminar during the workshop week, I had the honor of sharing the platform with Dr. George K. Zipf, lecturing on socio-logics and his Principles of Least Effort. (iii) At the San Francisco Conference on General Semantics in the summer of 1965, I received the honor of Dr. Sam Bois' inviting me to join him from the audience and discuss E-Prime.

From time to time people would write Korzubski and ask him why he continued to use the verb to be in the Identitity and Predication modes. They cited pages in Science and Sanity [1]for examples. I heard him deny that he did employ such uses on the given pages. You may turn to your copy of Science and Sanity and make your own analysis. Just remember:

Identity: Noun Phrase + a form of to be + Noun Phrase;

Predication: Noun Phrase + a form of to be + Adjective Phrase.

Korzybski occasionally went out of his way during a seminar to say that one could not communicate in English without the verb to be, since he believed that one would need the Auxiliary and perhaps other uses. Of course, we must take into account the fact that English did not constitute one of his maternal languages: he claimed that he "grew up" in four -- Polish, Russian, German, and French.

Bois included a brief mention of E-Prime in the first (1966) edition of his The Art of Awareness [2](p. 292f). By the time the third edition appeared in 1978, two changes had become incorporated in the E-Prime comments. In the first place, a typo made hash of the "semantic equation" that provided the origin of the name. E-Prime, symbolized as E', has had the following as its definition:

E' = E - e,

where E represents the one to two million words of the English language, and e represents the various conjugated forms of the verb to be. The typo in question replaced the "=" with "[". The resulting non-equation must have puzzled some readers, who probably blamed this writer, who hopes the publisher will correct the error in future editions of this classic. But Bois had also had second thoughts about E-Prime (certainly his prerogative): "Personally, I find Bourland's suggestion [to avoid all forms of to be] too sweeping. I retain two uses of the verb 'to be,' the 'to be' of existence (the lamp is on the table) and the 'to be' as an auxilliary (he is speaking)."[3], (p. 360) Unfortunately, Bois also retained the Identity and Predication uses, as one may readily determine by checking his book.

In 1992 the Institute of General Semantics issued a book list that, among many others, included mention of the anthology on E-Prime prepared by Paul Dennithorne Johnston and myself.[4] With an air of prompous judiciality, they asked: "Does E-Prime go too far?"

In May, 1993, Dr. David F. Mass kindly invited me to speak on E-Prime to his class on general semantics at Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas. After the presentation a student asked me whether I felt (meaning that he did feel) that I had gone...right: "Too far?"

I have to admit that it has gradually become extremely boring to have to go over this same material evey year. It seems similar not just to teaching the same class, year after year, but to teaching the same class to the same people year after year! And some of them keep earning terrible grades! I have even taken to asking certain colleagues for their views on why some supposedly intelligent people, with a background in general semantics, still seem to have a semantic blockage concerning the need of E-Prime.

Suggestions have included: (a) Poor babies! They just don't understand. (b) Frightened bunnies! They feel insecure with something so new. (c) Jerks! Ignore them. (d) Low

IQ overachievers! Some have become professional pars pro toto folks, claiming to avoid two uses only (which they do not). Come on out there: try to pay attention!

2. E-Prime as an Extensional Device

Starting with the first paper written concerning E-Prime, the writer has offered this subset of English as an extensional device. Korzybski stated the noble goal of the extensional devices as that of "Changing the [semantic] structure of the language, without changing the language itself." some might suggest that the preceding statement consists of a logical impossibility, but that belongs to some other argument. He gave the following as this extensional devices: indexes, dates, use of the etc., quotes, and hyphens. He subsequently added chain-indexes for their excellent assistance in dealing with problems involving hierarchical structures. To the writer, E-Prime clearly belongs with this group, although E-Prime does in fact affect the syntatic structure of the language more severely than do the other devices. Since this linguist agrees with the late Uriel Weinreich in recognizing "the deep interpenetration of syntax and semantics,"[5] what?

Now no one, so far as the writer knows, has ever attacked the extensional device status of the hyphen, say, because it does not solve/resolve all the problems of language. (Shall we review the second "Non-Aristotelian Law"?) Indeed, no one has snarled at the even more useful quotes or the enshrined etc., in view of their undoubted inability to fix every difficulty that afflicts us time-binders when we interact/transact with the world, including other time-binders. Similarly, E-Prime does not make it impossible to talk like a ninny, or a bigot, or a confused human, etc. However, it can help significantly in preventing the development of many serious problems.

After discussing the formulation of time-binding, in terms appropriate to the age/intelligence level of the group, the writer cannot imagine a more felicitous way to present the exciting major facets of general semantics than to begin with the extensional devices, including E-Prime. This emerged as the writerhs opinion after having taught general semantics to second-year graduate students for ten years, using Selections from Science and Sanity with its excellent index as the text. [6] Please keep in mind that almost any beginning student can start applying the seven extensional devices immediately upon learning of them, with reflections upon their deep significance to follow at leisure.

3. A Certain Verb vs. the Human Nervous System

If anyone would like to review the usages of the verb to be, please check the treatments in references [7] and [8]. Those two papers contian reasonably comprehensive discussions of the drawbacks involved in the routine application of that static verb, with special attention to Identity and Predication uses (as defined above), plus the inherent elementalism of the passivle voice, which may become awkward without to be in the Auxiliary use.

As if the major steps toward resolving those three language problems did not suffice to encourage one to use the extensional device known as E-Prime, we have recently received some material that shows the evil one can do to oneself with to be in the Existence use. Roberta Wedge had the following comment on the Existence use of the verb: "My main discomfort with what I understand of E-Prime I can state briefly: it denies me the right to assert myself in the simplest way possible, to stand up and say, 'I am, I exist, I am here.' There are so many pressures in this society that try to persuade me not to exist, not to be myself."[9] The writer regrets that Ms. Wedge evidently perceives herself as so ill-used by "this society," Do we see here the high order abstraction "this society" receiving the blame for her callous treatment by specific individuals? Korzybski suggested the applicaltion of dates and indexes to help in efforts to clarify and allocate such a seemingly wide-ranging hositlity. E-Prime, of course, denies Ms. Wedge nothing. If she used E-Prime in ways discussed in reference[10], Ms. Wedge might find her focus changing to "I can allow myself to feel, etc.; the here-and-now includes unique and wonderful me!" Please treat yourself to a strong dose of linguistic sensitivity, Ms. Wedge. Only you can do that, but E-Prime can probably help.

The frequency studies cited in reference[8] indicate that professional writers tend to employ some form of to be in half or more of their sentences. If a writer used any other verb that often, he or she would most likely have trouble getting the material published. (Word freaks may enjoy noting that the preceding sentence has a passive clause that does not involve to be.) We should remain conscious of the well-known fact that each time we use and re-use a given semantic structure, such as those involving to be, we wear a deeper groove -- so to speak -- in our brain, making the continued use of that structure jmore likely, and almost surely rendering us less likely to change such a pattern.

Too far? I don't think so.


[1.] Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Lakeville, Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co., 1933. Fourth edition, 1958.

[2.] J. Samuel Bois. The Art of Awareness. Dubuque, IA.: Wm. C. Brown Co., First edition, 1966.

[3.] J. Samuel Bois. The Art of Awareness. Dubuque, IA., Wm. C. Brown Co., Third edition, 1978.

[4.] D. David Bourland, Jr., and Paul Dennithorne Johnston, eds. To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics, 1991.

[5.] Uriel Weinreich. Explorations in Semantic Theory in Current Trends in Linguistics III: p. 395-477, 1966.

[6.] Alfred Korzybski. Selections from Science and Sanity. lakeville, Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co., 1918. Seventh printing 1972.

[7.] D. David Bourland, Jr. E-Prime and the Crispness Index, Unpublished.

[9.] Roberta Wedge. Letter to the Editor of ETC., dated April 20, 1992. [Reprinted in the present issue.]

[10.] E. W. Kellogg, III, and D. David Bourland, Jr. Working with E-prime: Some Practical Notes, ETC, 47, No. 4, 1991.
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Author:Bourland, D. David., Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Previous Article:Letter to D. David Bourland, Jr.
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