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E-Prime (short for English-Prime, sometimes denoted É or E′) is a prescriptive version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be. E-Prime does not allow the conjugations of to bebe, am, is, are, was, were, been, being— the archaic forms of to be (e.g. art, wast, wert), or the contractions of to be—'s, 'm, 're (e.g. I'm, he's, she's, they're).

Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing.[1] For example, the sentence "the film was good" could not be expressed under the rules of E-Prime, and the speaker might instead say "I liked the film" or "the film made me laugh". The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker's experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.


D. David Bourland, Jr., who had studied under Alfred Korzybski, came to the idea of E-Prime as an addition to Korzybski's general semantics in late 1940s.[2] Bourland published the concept in a 1965 essay entitled A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime (originally published in the General Semantics Bulletin). The essay quickly generated controversy within the general semantics field, partly because practitioners of general semantics sometimes saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages.

Bourland collected and published three volumes of essays in support of his innovation. The first (1991), co-edited by Paul Dennithorne Johnston bore the title: To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology [3] For the second, More E-Prime: To Be or Not II: 1994, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics, he added a third editor, Jeremy Klein.

Bourland and Johnston edited a third book E-Prime III: a third anthology: 1997, Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.

Korzybski (1879–1950) had determined that two forms of the verb 'to be'—the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of predication—had structural problems. For example, the sentence "The coat is red" has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain.

Korzybski pointed out the circularity of many dictionary definitions, and suggested adoption of the mathematical practice of acknowledging some minimal ensemble of primitive notions as necessarily 'undefined'; he chose 'structure', 'order', and 'relation'. He wrote of those that do not lend themselves to explication in words, but only by exhibiting how to use them in sentences. Korzybski advocated raising one's awareness of structural issues generally through training in general semantics.[citation needed]

Different functions of "to be"[edit]

In the English language, the verb 'to be' (also known as the copula) has several distinct functions:

  • identity, of the form "noun copula definite-noun" [The cat is my only pet]; [The cat is Garfield]
  • class membership, of the form "noun copula noun" [The cat is an animal]
  • predication, of the form "noun copula adjective" [The cat is furry]
  • auxiliary, of the form "noun copula verb" [The cat is sleeping]; [The cat is bitten by the dog]. The examples illustrate two different uses of 'be' as an auxiliary. In the first 'be' is part of the progressive aspect, used with "-ing" on the verb, and in the second it is part of the passive, as indicated by the perfect participle of a transitive verb.
  • existence, of the form "there copula noun" [There is a cat]
  • location, of the form "noun copula place-phrase" [The cat is on the mat]; [The cat is here]

Bourland sees specifically the "identity" and "predication" functions as pernicious, but advocates eliminating all forms for the sake of simplicity. In the case of the "existence" form (and less idiomatically, the "location" form), one might (for example) simply substitute the verb "exists". Other copula-substitutes in English include taste, feel, smell, sound, grow, remain, stay, and turn, among others a user of E-prime might use instead of to be.


Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility of misunderstanding and/or conflict.[4][5]

Some languages already treat equivalents of the verb "to be" differently without obvious benefits to their speakers. For instance, Arabic lacks a verb form of "to be" in the present tense. If one wanted to assert, in Arabic, that an apple is red, one would not literally say "the apple is red", but "the apple red". In other words, speakers can communicate the verb form of "to be", with its semantic advantages and disadvantages, even without the existence of the word itself. Thus they do not resolve the ambiguities that E-Prime seeks to alleviate without an additional rule, such as that all sentences must contain a verb. Similarly, the Ainu language consistently does not distinguish between "be" and "become"; thus ne means both "be" and "become", and pirka means "good", "be good", and "become good" equally. Many languages—for instance Japanese, Spanish, Nepali, and Hebrew—already distinguish "existence"/"location" from "identity"/"predication".

E-Prime and Charles Kay Ogden's Basic English may lack compatibility because Basic English has a closed set of verbs, excluding verbs such as "become", "remain", and "equal" that E-Prime often uses to describe precise actions or states.

Alfred Korzybski justified the expression he coined — "the map is not the territory" — by saying that "the denial of identification (as in 'is not') has opposite neuro-linguistic effects on the brain from the assertion of identity (as in 'is')."

Discouraged forms and rationale for typical replacements[edit]

To be belongs to the set of irregular verbs in English; some individuals, especially those who have learned English as a second language, may have difficulty recognizing all its forms. In addition, speakers of colloquial English frequently contract forms of to be after pronouns or before the word not. E-Prime would prohibit the following words as forms of to be:

Disallowed words[edit]

  • be
  • being
  • been
  • am
  • is; isn't
  • are; aren't
  • was; wasn't
  • were; weren't
  • Contractions formed from a pronoun and a form of to be:
    • I'm
    • you're; we're; they're
    • he's; she's; it's
    • there's; here's
    • where's; how's; what's; who's
    • that's
  • E-Prime likewise prohibits contractions of to be found in nonstandard dialects of English, such as the following:
    • ain't
    • hain't (when derived from ain't rather than haven't)
    • whatcha (derived from what are you)
    • yer (when derived from you are rather than your)

Allowed words[edit]

E-prime does not prohibit the following words, because they do not derive from forms of to be. Some of these serve similar grammatical functions (see auxiliary verbs).

  • become;
  • has; have; having; had (I've; you've)
  • do; does; doing; did
  • can; could
  • will; would (they'd)
  • shall; should
  • ought
  • may; might; must
  • remain
  • equal

Distinctions between self and others[edit]

Scholars of general semantics emphasize distinctions between different perceptions at different points in space (called indexing) over any universal God's eye view or assumed-shared or collective identity. By encouraging clarity on the active subject that "does" or wants or believes something, and disallowing passive constructions about the state of affairs (a common use of "to be"), E-Prime makes it more difficult to hide assumptions in statements about The Other or equivalent constructions such as "they" or "most people" or "the public" or "the taxpayer". E-Prime disallows forms of statement such as "they say X is Y" or "most people are into Z" or "the taxpayer is angry" while allowing statements such as "a clear majority of people say X always coexists with Y" or "most people approve of Z" or "the taxpayer doesn't like measure Q" or "lots of taxpayers express anger about Q".

Distinctions between past, present and future[edit]

E-Prime also discourages broad assertions crossing boundaries between past, present and future. General semantics' practice of dating and modern theories of scenario analysis and financial risk (based on statistics) emphasize a need to keep time frames of measurement and analysis carefully aligned. This avoids confusion between past events (which cannot be changed), the present (which one can test but not generally change) and future events (which one still has time to change even on a large scale), which can prevent noticing or taking an action to improve a future outcome.

Replacing statements including "to be" with those using becomes, remains and equals divides perception of, and expressions about, time more operationally into actual cognitive categories that humans know how to act upon:

  • To claim that one thing equals another is a claim only about the present with no reference to the future or the past—it can be disproved by direct testing (see falsifiability).
  • To claim that a thing remains another is to assert that a relationship exists in the present that was also true in the past, without reference to the future at all—it can be disproved by reference to history or memory.
  • To claim that one thing becomes another asserts a relationship between the present and the future, without reference to the past at all—it can be demonstrated undesirable or potentially false (though not disproved) with reference to intent.

Since history and memory (representations of or belief about the past) are distinct in all philosophy and ontology from plan, vision or intent (representations of or will to change the future), statements that confuse these are category errors: No statement about history or memory can imply a similar statement about a plan or vision or intent, nor vice versa - a distinction sometimes credited to Hume who distinguished also the morality of a statement from its truth. The very different ways that humans process memory or agree on history (about the past) must be, according to most philosophers, kept distinct from ways we employ logic on snapshots of axioms about our own immediate present and the ways we plan and envision an uncertain and collective future. By contrast, theology does assert high value for some unquestioned and eternal past-to-future equivalences. By substituting these three verbs, even without clarifying morality (ought, shall, should, must) or the actor(s) who do or did something, becomes/remains/equals makes clear what time frame of relationship is asserted, and disallows assuming one stable past/present/future timeline - known as single scenario planning or blind linearity and considered a grave error in risk analysis.

Other common replacement forms[edit]

Users of E-Prime also generally encourage other replacements that clarify subject, object, time frame, intent and scope of relationships, replacing:

  • statements assuming possession or ownership ("he is the landlord") with more operationally exact ones ("he owns the building and manages it") that describe the implications that the title or credential assumes.
  • statements assuming a combination of intention and probability ("they are moving") to distinguish the likely series of events and dependencies ("if they can sell their house they might move to Agrestic or if they can't, to Gardendale") in which the probability that an attempt to do something complex may fail is explicitly acknowledged.
  • statements assuming moral rightness or desirability of a state ("she is happy") with those that verify the difficulty of determining the state ("she smiles a lot, she seems happy, she would say something if her husband made her angry", etc.).

Influence in psychotherapy[edit]

While teaching at the University of Florida, Alfred Korzybski counseled his students to

eliminate the infinitive and verb forms of "to be" from their vocabulary, whereas a second group continued to use "I am," "You are," "They are" statements as usual. For example, instead of saying, "I am depressed," a student was asked to eliminate that emotionally primed verb and to say something else, such as, "I feel depressed when ..." or "I tend to make myself depressed about ..."[citation needed][page needed]

Korzybski observed improvement "of one full letter grade" by "students who did not generalize by using that infinitive".[6] Although this took place before the invention of E-Prime, it does show the application of general semantics to psychotherapy.

Albert Ellis advocated the use of E-Prime, especially in writing, as a way to avoid muddled and blame-based thinking that distresses psychotherapy patients.[7][page needed] According to Ellis, rational emotive behavior therapy "has favored E-Prime more than any other form of psychotherapy and I think it is still the only form of therapy that has some of its main books written in E-Prime."[8][page needed]

Neuro-linguistic programming uses E-Prime as a technique. NLP's theoretical basis relies heavily on Korzybski's and Bourland's work. [9]


The following short examples illustrate some of the ways that standard English writing can be modified to use E-Prime.

Standard English      E-Prime

To be or not to be,
That is the question.
Shakespeare's Hamlet
  To live or to die,
I ask myself this.
— modified from Shakespeare's Hamlet[10]

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
New American Standard Bible, Matthew 5:3
  The poor in spirit receive blessings, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
— modified from the New American Standard Bible[11]

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  Alice had just begun to tire of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister read, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what use has a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'
— modified from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland[citation needed]

Works written in E-Prime[edit]

  • Under The Eye of God, a science fiction novel by David Gerrold
  • A Covenant of Justice, a science fiction novel by David Gerrold
  • Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold has a chapter about (and written in) E-Prime
  • The New American Standard Bible in E-Prime, composed by Dr.David F. Maas[12]
  • Rewild or Die, by Urban Scout
  • Quantum Psychology, by Robert Anton Wilson
  • A New Guide to Rational Living, a self-help book by Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper
  • Overcoming Procrastination, by Albert Ellis
  • Sex and the Liberated Man, by Albert Ellis
  • Anger: How to Live With and Without It, by Albert Ellis
  • Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better, Albert Ellis (This self-help book closely follows E-prime rules but "is not written in E-prime because I found it interferes somewhat with readability", as Ellis noted on page 2.)
  • Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, by Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish
  • Laws of Form by G. Spencer-Brown (except for one statement)
  • An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson by Eric Wagner
  • "The Enki Clan" by Kerry M. Chase. General narrative written in e-Prime, while dialogue remains in common vernacular for readability's sake and in an effort to preserve the colorful individualistic presentations. This use of e-Prime encourages alternative expressions in writing, but doesn't preclude the use of other writing forms.[13] The reader might notice an occasional lapse in the e-Prime rule, but might find encouragement in its judicial use as a tool, rather than a rule.


Many authors have questioned E-Prime's effectiveness at improving readability and reducing prejudice (Lakoff, 1992; Murphy, 1992; Parkinson, 1992; Kenyon, 1992; French, 1992, 1993; Lohrey, 1993). These authors observed that a communication under the copula ban can remain extremely unclear and imply prejudice, while losing important speech patterns, such as identities and identification. Further, prejudices and judgments that are made are more difficult to notice or refute. James D. French, a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley, summarized ten arguments against E-Prime (in the context of general semantics) as follows:[14]

  1. The elimination of a whole class of sentences results in fewer alternatives and is likely to make writing less, rather than more, interesting. One can improve bad writing more by reducing use of the verb 'to be' than by eliminating it.
  2. "Effective writing techniques" are not relevant to general semantics as a discipline, and therefore should not be promoted as general semantics practice.
  3. The context often ameliorates the possible harmful effects from the use of the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication, so it is not necessary to eliminate all such sentences. For example "George is a Judge" in response to a question of what he does for a living would not be a questionable statement.
  4. To be statements do not only convey identity but also asymmetrical relations ("X is higher than Y"); negation ("A is not B"); location ("Berlin is in Germany"); auxiliary ("I am going to the store") etc., forms we would also have to sacrifice.
  5. Eliminating to be from English has little effect on eliminating identity. For example, a statement of apparently equal identification, "The silly ban on copula continues," can be made without the copula assuming an identity rather than asserting it, consequently hampering our awareness of it.
  6. Identity-in-the-language is not the same thing as the far more important identity-in-reaction (identification). General semantics cuts the link between the two through the practice of silence on the objective levels, adopting a self-reflexive attitude, e.g., "as I see it" "it seems to me" etc., and by the use of quotation marks — without using E-Prime.
  7. The advocates of E-Prime have not proven that it is easier to eliminate the verb to be from the English language than it is to eliminate just the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication. It may well be easier to do the latter for many people.
  8. One of the best languages for time-binding is mathematics, which relies heavily on the notion of equivalence and equality. For the purposes of time-binding, it may be better to keep to be in the language while only cutting the link between identity-in-the-language and identification-in-our-reactions.
  9. A civilization advances when it can move from the idea of individual trees to that of forest. E-Prime tends to make the expression of higher orders of abstraction more difficult, e.g. a student is more likely to be described in E-Prime as "She attends classes at the university".
  10. E-Prime makes no distinction between statements that cross the principles of general semantics and statements that do not. It lacks consistency with the other tenets of general semantics and should not be included into the discipline.

According to an article (written in E-Prime and advocating a role for E-Prime in ESL and EFL programs) published by the Office of English Language Programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department of the United States, "Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing."[15]

See also[edit]


  • Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1991). To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics. p. 185. ISBN 0-918970-38-5. 
  • Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1997). E-Prime III! : a third anthology. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics. ISBN 0-918970-46-6. 
  • Bourland, D. David, Jr., Jeremy Klein, and Paul Dennithorne Johnstone, (editors) (1994) More E-Prime: To Be or Not II. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.
  • French, James D. (1992) The Top Ten Arguments against E-Prime. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p175-79
  • ________________ (1993) The Prime Problem with General Semantics. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p326-35
  • Kenyon, Ralph (1992) E-Prime: The Spirit and the Letter.ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p185-88
  • Lakoff, Robin T. (1992) Not Ready for Prime Time. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p142-45
  • Lohrey, Andrew (1993) E-Prime, E-Choice, E-Chosen. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p346-50
  • Murphy, Cullen (1992) "To Be" in Their Bonnets: A Matter of Semantics. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p125-30 Sum 1992
  • Murphy, Cullen (1992) "'To Be' in Their Bonnets: A matter of semantics" The Atlantic Monthly February 1992
  • Parkinson, Theresa (1992). "Beyond E-Prime". ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49 (2): 192–195. 


  1. ^ Zimmerman, Daniel (Fall 2001). "E-Prime as a Revision Strategy". ETC: A Review of General Semantics 58.3. pp. 340–347. Retrieved 2009-01-10. Using E-Prime, I require students to paraphrase about half their sentences—admittedly, in a special way, but using as stylistic models the best of the rest of their sentences, already written in 'native' E-Prime. The more gracefully and effectively they learn to do this, the more they begin to sound like themselves as writers, rather than like all the other writers around them sound about half the time. 
  2. ^ Cullen Murphy, "Just curious: essays", 1995, ISBN , 039570099X p. 78
  3. ^ Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1991). To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics. p. 185. ISBN 0-918970-38-5. 
  4. ^ D. David Bourland, Jr. (Fall 1989). "TO BE OR NOT TO BE: E-Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking: E-Prime! — The Fundamentals". ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall 1989. International Society for General Semantic. Archived from the original on 2008-01-03. Retrieved 2009-05-19. In writing and talking [E-Prime] provides a method for materially reducing 'the human misunderstanding.' 
  5. ^ Lundin, Leigh (2013-03-03). "Professional Tips: To Be or Not". On É. Miami: SleuthSayers. 
  6. ^ Ellis, Albert (2010). Albert Ellis: Evolution of a Revolution. Barricade Books. 
  7. ^ Ellis, Albert (2001). Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better: Profound Self-Help Therapy. Impact Publishers. 
  8. ^ Ellis, Albert (2000). The Albert Ellis Reader: A Guide to Well-Being Using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Citadel. 
  9. ^ Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bobby G. (1997). Mind-Lines: Magical Lines To Transform Minds (2nd ed.). E.T. Publications. Retrieved December 12, 2011. 
  10. ^ Compare Hamby, Barbara (2006). The Alphabet of Desire. Orchises Press. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-932535-10-5. Retrieved 2010-02-27. [...] Hamlet would be fresh out of luck. What would he say, To exist or not to exist? 
  11. ^ Maas, David. "The New American Standard Bible in E-Prime - The Gospel and Acts". WebCite. The Institute of General Semantics. Retrieved 24 June 2014. 
  12. ^ http://www.generalsemantics.org/the-general-semantics-learning-center/applications-of-general-semantics/the-new-american-standard-bible-in-e-prime/
  13. ^ The Enki Clan, The Jungle Trilogy Volume 3; Writers Club Press, 2001
  14. ^ Compare: French, James D (1992). "The Top Ten Arguments Against E-Prime". ETC: A Review of General Semantics (Institute of General Semantics) 49 (2): 75–79. 
  15. ^ Herbert, John C. "English Prime as an Instructional Tool in Writing Classes". English Teaching Forum Online. United States Department of State. Archived from the original on 2006-10-07. Retrieved 2009-10-06. When applying the aforementioned ideas to any writing assignment, teachers must make sure their students know that the proposed set of guidelines represents only one means to an end and does not present an end in itself. Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing. However, introducing E-Prime restrictions for at least one assignment forces students to spend more time with their essays, to think critically about acceptable grammar and vocabulary, and to search for new, or nearly forgotten, vocabulary. 

External links[edit]