[Freeing the Mind][General Semantics][E-prime]

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The Problem

Certain expressions which involve identity and attributes lead us to confusion in our thinking. This sometimes arises because of the verb 'to be.' For example:

  • I am depressed
  • Who am I?
  • He is a criminal
  • It is clear that we should take action.

'I am depressed', implies that

  • I always feel sad,
  • will always feel sad, and
  • I can do nothing about it,

'Is' and 'are', like all present tense verbs, imply no time, no space and absolute truth. 'I am depressed'  abbreviates what has happened in the past. So perhaps it means

I felt sad on many occasions in the past, and I feel sad now.

Certainly, this meaning upsets us less than 'I am depressed'.

The question 'Who am I' seems to me quite meaningless and unanswerable. It appears to ask for something the same as the speaker (the identity function.) and if uniqueness characterises each of us, then nothing can equal the speaker. So the question seems unanswerable. On the other hand, if we ask, 'What characterises me?' then we can list a set of characters, and, in principle, this question has an answer.

Similarly, 'He is a criminal' implies that he does, always did, always will do some unstated bad thing. When we say someone is a criminal we associate with that person everything we think about the word criminal. We confuse what we know about the word with the person. It could mean, however, that during his teenage years he stole one thing for a dare and has regretted it since. The use of the imprecise verb 'to be' and its various forms can lead us to false beliefs.

In the sentence, 'It is clear that we should take action', we could ask, 'Clear to whom?' Or what is clear? If we eliminate the 'is' then we might say, 'It appears to me that we should take action'. This seems more clear and accurate to me.

Because of these problems, followers of E-Prime suggest  removing the verb 'to be' from the English language. This would:

  • Remove upsetting but useless self-talk.
  • Would eliminate metaphysics in its present form.
  • Would prevent us using meaningless 'to be' abbreviations ('This is why ...').
  • Would remove passives, and make statement clearer by identifying the agent.

Of course mainly they argue against the use of attributes and identity, and eliminating the verb 'to be' reducing the problem in a simple way. It does not completely resolve the issue of attributes and identity, of course.

E-Prime: English without the verb 'to be'

Eprime does not use any form of the verb 'to be.'

Without the verb 'to be' the use of the following becomes difficult:

  1. Passives
  2. Existential Questions, such as 'Who am I'
  3. Progressive verb forms

Harold is a man

I am a priest so I must be holy.

The cat is black

In psychotherapy, Patients say to themselves that 'I am stupid', 'I am inadequate', etc.

The statements in E-Prime appear more accurate than those using 'to be.' Removing the verb 'to be' also appears to remove much of the conflict in these sentences .

 How does the verb to be cause problems?

I have never really understood the meaning of the verb 'to be.' Many years ago, when I taught the Japanese English, I would usually tell or indicate to beginners that the word, say, 'is' meant '=.' This seemed fine as an expedient, although it was only a rough symbolic representation. When I tried to figure out some meaning, for instance of 'John is good' then none of the definitions of 'is' made any sense to me. To say that 'John has the attribute of goodness' seems to make the whole thing more complicated, and when I sought the meaning of 'attribute' I found I could not reduce it to anything other than a synonym, such as quality, and, of course, 'quality' meant 'attribute'!

'The apple is red' apparently has a clear meaning, in that if I look at the apple I expect it to be red, yet have you ever heard a similar statement and when you looked you didn't think it was particularly red? The speaker actually meant that the apple appeared red to him. Whenever we get more complicated and use statement like, 'Mary is gorgeous,' then the use of the verb 'to be', in this case 'is' can be very misleading. To the speaker, Mary appeared gorgeous at that particular time, and in that particular place. When 'appear', for example, replaces' 'is' then the statements become much less misleading.

The use of the theory of attributes cause the problem here. By saying, 'The apple is red', we assume that it has the quality of redness, and that everyone perceives it so. I might say, 'Mm! It appears to be more green to me.' And we have controversy. The statement 'This apple appears red to me at this time and in the position in space, under these lighting conditions' does not create controversy. I may disagree. I may describe the apple as 'green', but because it looks green to me, from my perspective, and it looks red to you, from your perspective, does not mean we disagree. If, on the other hand, we use the theory that things have attributes, then there must be something that distinguishes the object from others - something the object has independently of any observers. So one of us must be wrong. It seems therefore, that by avoiding the verb 'to be' we also avoid disagreement, and may increase rapport.

The problem of attributes becomes more important when we use intangible ones. 'The apple is red', illustrates attributes simply, where if I think it IS green, then either you, or I err. The attribute 'wrong' will cause much more controversy! It means that either you or I has the attribute of wrongness. But what does 'wrongness' mean? If we died and our bodies dissected, the dissector would find no wrongness in either of us! Wrongness is not a physical thing that can be found in us. Clearly, we cannot touch or see 'wrongness'. Can we see wrongness in behaviour? Of course not. We can describe it as a moral quality, but is that something we can perceive? Philosophers believe that the use of attributes can lead us into all kinds of nonsense, and the followers of eprime suggest that by eliminating the verb 'to be', many of these problems can be resolved.

In explaining wrongness, I have said that "someone might utter the words, 'You are wrong!'" However, Does that mean I have assumed philosophical nominalism - apart from the words, a class or group has nothing else in common? Although Nominalism appears more rational, it also shows that in trying to eliminate Aristotle, I have introduced another theory (Nominalism). This seems inevitable, after all we always have to make assumptions, but it also brings out the fact that language represents our belief systems, or the belief systems of long ago!

When we use the verb 'to be' as an attribute, we imply that things are:

  • Permanent
  • Always true
  • Unchanging
  • Look, sound, feel, smell, etc. the same to everyone.
  • Final
  • Etc. and
  • Lead us to make hasty and premature conclusions.

That is, they are objective, absolute, abbreviated and therefore controversial.

Science teachers tell their students that do science in an objective way, and objectivity seems important to them. Yet, it conceals the lie 'that things persist permanenty and absolutely', when humans alone think this. Do those nebulous and airy creatures who live in the asteroid belt have the same physics that we have? Don't we have our viewpoints because we have our eyes, ears and sensors, and with a different biology, we would have a different world view? I think we would!

For example,

  1. John is a crook
  2. Be objective (i.e., do not let your own existence affect the results)
  3. Men are selfish
  4. Humanity is in decline
  5. Alice is so sexy.
  6. Bill is my husband
  7. I am stupid
  8. I want to be self-confident
  9. You are so unreasonable!
  10. I am a worrier

You can imagine the long and heated discussions on 'Men are selfish' and similar statements. However, according to some, the use of the verb 'to be' causes the problem. By eliminating the verb 'to be' we eliminate the problem! Let us illustrate this by translating the above statements into E-Prime. Statements using 'is' in common with many present tense verbs can imply the unquestionable truth of the statement.

  1. John is a crook.
    Last year, John took a tin of baby food from a shop without paying, according to the shopkeeper.
  2. Be objective (i.e., do not let your own existence affect the results.)
    According to me, you should appear objective!!!
    (According to me, you should simply listen and observe, and keep your personal views out of it!)
  3. Men are selfish
    Harold forgot our anniversary.
  4. Humanity is in decline
    I read a report by a professor saying the world's resources had declined.
  5. Alice is so sexy.
    When I saw Alice yesterday, I felt sexy.
  6. Bill is my husband.
    Because we went through a legal marriage ceremony five years ago, I refer to Bill as my husband.
  7. I am stupid.
    I utter the words, 'You are stupid' to myself, therefore, 'I conclude 'I am stupid'
    Or I spent too much money last week.
  8. I want to be self-confident.
    I want to speak up more at works meetings.
  9. You are so unreasonable!
    You appear to me to behave so unreasonably!
  10. I am a worrier
    I picture imaginary things happening and tell myself frightening stories about the future

When we translate the 'to be' statements into E-Prime, then they appear to me less absolute, objective and less controversial. Some statement appear complete nonsense. Where they would tend to lead us to hasty conclusions, they become more factual.

Should we translate all English into E-Prime

Firstly, consider the use of 'to be' in the following sentences:

I am working in the garden at the moment.

I was walking down the road yesterday when I saw Alice.

This time next week, I will be lying on the beach!

This use of the verb 'to be' in the progressive senses doesn't appear to involve predication and identity, and does not appear easy to translate without losing important meanings in the language. To use 'continues to ...', etc, makes for strange English! 'At this moment I continue to garden.'

Also consider the following:

The house was built in 1903.

The work has been completed.

The victims were examined at the hospital and sent home.

In the sentences, we do not know the doer, or we do not consider the doer important, or if we identified the doer, we might confuse the reader. For instance, we might say:

Bill Boggs & Co built the house in 1903.

But this might lead the reader to wonder why we mentioned Bill Boggs and to wonder its significance, when it has no significance at all.

Either we use 'got' as a replacement in these passive sentences, or we reveal the agent:

The builders built the house in 1903 (Who else, but builders!)

The workers completed the work.

The doctors examined the victims at the hospital and allowed them to go home.

Does eliminating the verb 'to be' in these make any improvements? If a co-operative built the house, then this appears worth saying, but surely not 'builders' - this seems so obviouse! If a team of housewives completed the work, then this seems interesting and worth noting, but 'workers ... ' If the local mechanic examined the victims, this too appears worth saying, but surely not 'the doctors ...'

Having said this, many passive constructions conceal vagueness and possibly mislead so the active expression appears better on most occasions. For example:

  • It is forbidden.
  • It is decided.
  • The matter is concluded.
  • It isn't done.

Without the verb 'to be' these statements would be very difficult to express! Yet we could express them as (in one of many ways):

  • The king forbade this.
  • Mr Smith decided this.
  • I have decided to conclude the matter. 
  • According to me, it is wrong.

How to translate English into E-Prime


The rose is red.

Use 'appears to me/ you/ them', 'seems to me', 'looks to me', etc.

to me
to them
to us
to him/ her
  1. This is inscrutable.
    This appears inscrutable to those scientist.
  2. The problem is insoluble.
    The problem seems insoluble to me
  3. There is no answer.
    There appears no answer to me
  4. Mary is beautiful
    Mary appears beautiful to my eyes.

Translations into e-prime should be natural. Using appears, etc solves the problem by using ready made solutions. Better solutions would use more accurate language.


  1. Be a man!
    Tell her what you think!
  2. Be a good mother!
    Feed your baby when it cries!
  3. Be the monster in the play!
    Take the role of monster in the play!
  1. I am Ken
    My parents named me Ken.
  2. She is an engineer.
    She has a degree in engineering.
  3. This is a toad.
    English speaking people call this a toad.