To Be or Not to Be

by Mark Cohen on November 2, 2015

Is”, “is.” “is”—the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to to_be_or_not_to_bemake sense. I don’t know what anything “is”; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.

— Robert Anton Wilson,


Would you like to clarify your thinking? Improve your writing? Impress women (or guys) with your intelligence? You can. Just avoid using all forms of the verb to be.

Why eliminate to be? The verb creates problems because we often use it like an equal sign. We say, “The cat is white.” But cat and white are two different things. Cat denotes an animal. White denotes a color. If we can’t use is, we must instead say, “The cat has white fur”a more accurate statement.

Professor D. David Bourland, Jr. developed this idea in the late 1940’s. He published an essay on it in 1965. He named this form of English E-Prime.

E-Prime forces us to distinguish between ourselves and others. Instead of saying, “The public is against the proposed legislation,” we must say, “A majority of voters oppose the legislation.

E-Prime prevents us from passing off our opinions as fact. Instead of saying, “That book is terrible,” we must say, “I did not enjoy that book.”

E-Prime also avoids broad assertions crossing boundaries between past, present and future. In E-Prime we can’t say, “I am depressed,” which suggests a permanent state, but must instead say, “I feel depressed right now.”

Bourland referred to use of to be as a “Deity mode of speech,” which “allows even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things.”

So try it out. Let me know what you think. But be mindful that there may be times when E-Prime interferes with a higher artistic purpose. It’s probably good that Elvis wrote, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” rather than, “You possess many of the qualities hound dogs possess.”


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