"To Be" in Their Bonnets

A matter of semantics  

By Cullen Murphy
A few days ago I opened up a recent issue (Volume 48, Number 2) of Et cetera, the quarterly journal of the International Society for General Semantics, and within a few minutes of doing so got a bit of a surprise. The surprise came from an article by Emory Menefee, a former president of the ISGS, which bluntly calls into question attempts by many society members to promote something called E-Prime, a form of English that has for years ranked extremely high among the interests of the general-semantics community. Advocates of E-Prime, for reasons I'll come to, favor the elimination in English of every form of the verb "to be"—be, been, is, am, are, was, were, 'm, 's, 're, and all the rest. They not only promote E-Prime as a theoretical proposition but also try in daily life to erase to be and its inflections from everything they write. The most committed advocates use E-Prime even when they talk. Given all this, to see the E-Prime endeavor criticized in an official organ— to see that endeavor, indeed, termed "quixotic"—naturally raised an eyebrow. When I queried the International Society for General Semantics about the matter, the executive director, Paul Dennithorne Johnston, assured me that the society never did, and does not now, regard E-Prime as tantamount to some sort of "party line." Well, fine. But it has strong support among the nomenklatura, and I do not expect them to hold their peace.

General semantics originated in the work of a Polish engineer, Count Alfred Korzybski, who first spelled out his ideas about language and other symbolic structures in 1933 in his book Science and Sanity. Korzybski had come to the United States in 1915 and eventually became a citizen. In 1938 he established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. The institute moved to Lime Rock, Connecticut, late in 1946. (The field has two journals. In 1943 a student of Korzybski's, the noted semanticist and one-term U.S. senator S.I. Hayakawa, founded Et cetera, which currently has about 2,500 subscribers. Korzybski's associate M. Kendig founded the General Semantics Bulletin in 1950.) Explanations of general semantics can become pretty elaborate pretty fast, but the basic idea sounds simple enough. Most of us think of language as something that reflects reality or at least allows us to express our perceptions of reality. Without denying this, general semanticists believe that the very structure of language can influence or distort our perceptions, and they contend that a failure to observe the many ways in which language can do this results in an inability to apprehend the meaning not only of other people's words but of one's own as well. This, of course, causes problems, the size of which can range from the most minor misunderstandings to complete metaphysical disarray, and the problems, naturally, spill over into the realm of behavior. Korzybski himself took a grave view of the actual and potential consequences of "semantic damage." Semanticists observe, tellingly, that the carnage of the First World War powerfully catalyzed Korzybski's thinking.

General semantics over the years has taken up a diverse array of subjects touching on language — for example, doublespeak, logic, newspaper headlines, nonverbal communication, objectivity, cultural relativism, euphemism, metaphor — but through it all the verb to be has remained a core of concern. That many people in the field, including Korzybski, would zero in on this verb strikes one, in retrospect, as entirely predictable; after all, philosophers had called attention to its problematic character at least as early as the seventeenth century, and their uneasiness had not let up by the twentieth. "The little word is has its tragedies," George Santayana wrote in 1923, in a passage that general semanticists quote frequently and fondly.
It names and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger. Whenever I use the word is, except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder....
Santayana's complaint had to do with locutions like "Mary is a woman" and "Mary is cold," in which the verb is implies the tight coupling of equivalent things, whereas in fact in the first instance it joins nouns that have different levels of abstraction and in the second it joins a noun to an adjective that neither completely nor permanently qualifies it. Transgressions like these may seem trivial, but in fact they pose fundamental problems of logic, and they greatly bother critical thinkers.

To these sins of the verb to be semanticists have added many others. For example, the verb makes possible the widespread use of the passive voice, conditioning us to accept detours around crucial issues of causality ("Mistakes were made"). It makes possible the raising of unanswerable, because hopelessly formulated, questions ("What is truth?"). It makes possible, too, the construction of a variety of phrases ("As is well known...") that casually sweep reasoning under the rug. One also finds the verb to be pressed into service on behalf of stereotypical labeling ("Scotsmen are stingy") and overbroad existential generalization ("I'm just no good"). These issues aside, semanticists say, the verb to be, broadly speaking, imputes an Aristotelian neatness, rigidity, and permanence to the world around us and to the relationships among all things in it — conditions that rarely have any basis in a dynamic reality.

Although Korzybski and others fashioned an indictment of to be relatively early in the history of general semantics, the idea of actually getting rid of the verb altogether dates back only to the late 1940s, when it occurred to D. David Bourland, Jr., at that time a Korzybski fellow at Lime Rock. Bourland first used his writing system, which he eventually called E-Prime (E'), in an article, "Introduction to a Structural Calculus: A Postulational Statement of Alfred Korzybski's Non-Aristotelian Linguistic System," that appeared without fanfare in the General Semantics Bulletin in 1952. (He derived the term "E-Prime" from the equation E'=E-e, where E represents standard English and e represents the inflected forms of to be.) Bourland would later recall that writing this article left him with "an intermittent, but severe, headache which lasted for about a week." Strange as it may seem, a piece of text in polished E-Prime does not necessarily alert readers to the E-Prime aspect of its character, and Bourland continued to use E-Prime, unnoticed by the outside world, in his work. Indeed, he deliberately took no steps to call wide attention to how he wrote, lest, as he also recalled, "I become regarded as some kind of nut." Eventually, though, a few close friends prevailed upon Bourland to go public, which in a manner of speaking he did, in 1965, with another article in the General Semantics Bulletin, this one titled "A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime." Since then E-Prime in its written form has acquired several dozen practitioners within the general-semantics community.

As for its oral form, those familiar with E-Prime point to an independent research scientist in Oregon named E. W. Kellogg III as perhaps America's most accomplished E-Prime speaker (the competition consists of three or four other people, including David Bourland), and I decided to give Kellogg a call. I expected to hear someone speaking in a slow and considered manner, as if picking his way through a linguistic swamp, but he talked briskly and with what sounded like supreme self-confidence. Yes, he said, he halted a lot when he first started speaking E-Prime, in 1978, and a lot of sentences ended abruptly in the middle when he could see himself running into an is. At times he lapsed into a kind of pidgin E-Prime. The transition, in short, took some work. "I had to cope with all that backlog of 'is-pattern' English," he explained. "And I had to do it in real time." But Kellogg got the hang of it stylistically after a year or so, and he now strives in his speech (as he and others also do in writing) to effect further refinements. These include ridding his vocabulary of instances of absolutism (for example, such words as always and ever, which imply immutability) and of many nouns made out of verbs (in particular those with a -tion ending, such as visualization and procrastination, which freeze ongoing processes into static events). Kellogg also hopes to reduce his reliance on have, which quite often can substitute for is, and on other crutches like appear and seem. "I aim at a more phenomenological ideal," he said. "I try to move toward a language that communicates the territory of my experience to myself and others as clearly and accurately as possible." As we spoke, Kellogg's voice at times gathered a certain momentum, clipped and commanding, comfortable in its fluency. As a salesman for E-Prime, he excelled.

Now back to Emory Menefee, who in his Et cetera article makes several arguments against E-Prime and in favor of what he calls E-Choice (a term that, as he good-naturedly acknowledges, "arose from the strained similarity between the term E-Prime and a USDA meat grade"). For one thing, Menefee notes, most general semanticists consider certain uses of to be unobjectionable—for example, as an auxiliary verb, or to convey the fact of existence, or to create metaphors. Why throw these out? (E-Prime advocates, in reply, make an argument for total abstinence similar to the ones heard with respect to smoking or drinking.) Moreover, Menefee goes on, most of the problems caused by the misuse of to be can occur in E-Prime as well, especially if a speaker hasn't internalized all the underlying logic involved; the bloody-minded human cortex can easily work its way around a little obstacle like the proscription of a few words. And in any event, Menefee observes, in the real world E-Prime can never hope to achieve a status other than its present one—as the plaything of a handful of enthusiasts. Menefee concedes, in the end, only that E-Prime may perhaps serve usefully as a "pedagogic tool to force extreme attention on the verb 'to be.'"

Anyone wishing to explore the E-Prime issue further can turn to Et cetera itself and to a new collection of essays, titled To Be or Not, published by the ISGS, in San Francisco. I myself, having seen the intensity that general semanticists can bring to their work, have no intention of stepping cavalierly into the maw of this debate. Volume 48, Number 3, of Et cetera will, I expect, feature bloody reprisals. And yet, having used E-Prime for eight paragraphs now, I would venture to pray that the parties involved could find some common ground on one point. Whether E-Prime deserves to become more or no more than a pedagogic tool, surely we can all hope that it might become at least a pedagogic tool. Almost all of us tend to overuse to be. E-Prime shows how we overuse it. It forces one relentlessly to confront sloppiness, laziness, fuzziness, blandness, imprecision, simplistic generalization, and a half dozen other all too frequent characteristics of casual prose. As a self-administered exercise, this single restraint on style, with all the discomfort that may ensue, offers more real insight in an afternoon than can be gained from a year's worth of spoken precepts.

And the cost? In my case, a mere headache, severe but intermittent. I have reason to believe it will last about a week.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1992/02/to-be-in-their-bonnets/376347/