This column will change your life: To be or not to be…
It’s 45 years since David Bourland suggested doing away with the verb “to be”. A silly suggestion, one might think, but look a little closer and it makes a weird kind of sense
Forty-five years ago, the author David Bourland published an essay proposing a radical overhaul of English based on eliminating all forms of the verb “to be”. In a world where we all spoke E-Prime, as Bourland called this new language, you couldn’t say “Sandra Bullock’s latest film is shockingly mediocre”; you’d have to say it “seems mediocre to me”. Shakespeare productions would need retooling (“To live or not to live, I ask this question”), as would the Bible (“The Lord functions as my shepherd”). The world, in short, would feel very different – though in E-Prime you couldn’t actually say it “was” very different. Unsurprisingly, it proved even less popular than Esperanto, and in fairness Bourland never meant it as a serious replacement for English. But in this anniversary year, his eccentric vision deserves celebrating. Because in theory at least, E-Prime aimed at nothing less than using language to make our insane lives a little more sane.
Bourland studied under Alfred Korzybski, a Polish aristocrat émigré who founded the philosophy of General Semantics, made famous by his slogan, “The map is not the territory.” To think about and function in the world, Korzybski said, we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don’t reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst. And the verb “to be”, he argued, contains the most traps of all.
Take the phrase, “My brother is lazy.” It seems clear, but Korzybski and Bourland would say it deceives: it implies certainty and objectivity, when in reality it expresses an opinion. Even, “The sky is blue” papers over the details: I really mean, “The sky appears blue to me.” “Our judgments can only be probabilistic,” wrote Allen Walker Read, a Korzybski follower. “Therefore we would do well to avoid finalistic, absolutistic terms. Can we ever find ‘perfection’ or ‘certainty’ or ‘truth’? No! Then let us stop using such words in our formulations.” E-Prime provided an easy way to do this: simply stop using “to be”.
All this might seem maniacally pointless pedantry. But as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and “finalistic, absolutistic” thoughts trigger stressful emotions. “I am a failure” feels permanent, all-encompassing, hopeless. Restating it in E-Prime – “I feel like a failure” or “I have failed at this task” – makes it limited, temporary, addressable.
“I have found repeatedly,” wrote the novelist Robert Anton Wilson, an E-Prime advocate, “that when baffled by a problem in science, in philosophy, or in daily life, I gain immediate insight by writing down what I know about the enigma in strict E-Prime.” Political debates might benefit, too, since E-Prime renders unyielding dogmatism – “All immigrants are scroungers!”, “Taxation is theft!” etcetera – essentially impossible. As George Santayana put it, “The little word ‘is’ has its tragedies.”
E-Prime never really caught on; General Semantics fell out of fashion. (It can’t have helped that Korzybski’s fans included that high-priest of poppycock, L Ron Hubbard.) Even so, trying to express one’s thoughts without using “to be” can have a curiously salutary, bracing effect. In this column, with the obvious exception of the quoted examples, I have attempted to do this.