As an exponent of the E-Prime dialect of English, I presently refuse to
use any form of to be in what I write and/or say. The underlying
theory suggests that I may expect to derive certain distinct advantages
from complying with this constraint. When I tabulate these advantages, I
generally place near the bottom of the list the structural fact that by
rejecting to be I make it impossible for me to generate locutions
in the passive voice. When I restrict myself to active voice by using E-Prime,
so the argument goes, then I must bring out of hiding the agents
involved in whatever situations I set out to discuss. This constraint supposedly
prevents me from unawarely using psychological tricks such as concealed
denial, self-reproach, blame-casting, unaware projecting, etc. In that sense,
I can use E-Prime to help keep me honest with myself. Certain experiences
from my past tell me that to achieve that, I need all the help I can find.
Perhaps, on first blush, this supposed advantage may sound trivial, unimportant.
"Bring the agents out of hiding"very nice, but does it matter?
Well, let me tell you a tale, and then I’ll turn you loose to draw your
This incident occurred in the spring of 1972, a few weeks after a Named
Professor of Physics at a prominent Eastern university had invited me to
give a brief guest lecture to his research group. He had become interested
in studying social systems by the methods of physics, and had already gathered
together a diverse company of colleagues.
The research group met for an hour once a week, each time to hear and discuss
two twenty-minute presentations. By that time, I had written a comprehensive
theory of human behavior, and had mathematized itframed it as an axiomatic
system stated in a set theory notation. A few months previously, I had done
a research study which involved movies taken of non-verbal encounters between
unselected strangers and a known participant. I had shown these recorded
encounters to panels of independent judges, who rated each one on a scale
derived from my theory. Then I had done the appropriate statistics to establish
the degree of inter-judge agreement (which turned out quite high). Perhaps
I had something to offer to The Professor and the eclectic company of his
colleagues. So I prepared a twenty-minute talk on this study, complete with
overhead transparencies to present my data and conclusions.
When I gave my talk, I started off by stating the fundamental question which
my long-term study of human behavior asks and answers:
|We humans function as dynamically-changing organisms, dealing with
our dynamically-changing environments; and we guide ourselves mainly
by sensory intake, which remains intrinsically inaccurate,
incomplete, and self-referential. Operating within these
daunting constraints, we nevertheless manage to keep ourselves more
or less intact, and more or less growing, from one moment to the next
for a whole lifetime.
My question: How do we do it?
Well, the physicists, sociologists, geographers, etc., who made up the research
group seemed quite comfortable with this "fundamental question".
Then I stated my most fundamental assumption:
|I reject the logical construct of identityI disallow
the notion of "absolute sameness in all respects or negation of difference"
as a valid construct, in any guise or form, explicit or tacit.
And suddenly, I had twenty-five people pounding on their desks and yelling
At first I felt astonished. Then I glanced again at my audience and made a
surmiseafter a bit more uproar, they will subside, and I can finish
my talk. However, the uproar went on and on. I looked at my watch, and started
timing this performance. They still continued unabated, pounding and yelling,
for all of ten minutes. Then The Professor got to his feet and went to the
blackboard, and the group fell silent. The Professor drew some letters on
the board, connected pairs of them with squiggly lines, and said, "In physics,
we specify states, and draw relations between them. You cannot do physics
unless you specify states, and draw relations between them. Physics is the
process of drawing relations between the states we specify. In physics, we
specify states and..." And for another ten minutes by my watch, he continued
to repeat these few key terms in every grammatically acceptable combination,
over and over again. Eventually, one of the graduate studentsI remember
her as small and attractive-lookingraised her hand, and, not waiting
for anyone to call on her, sang out, "hey! If we keep on arguing with his
major premise, we’ll never get to hear his results."
So everyone fell "politely" silent, and I finished my presentation. When I
gave the non-verbal cues that I had finished talking, twenty-five people got
up and staggered out like zombieshaving offered no comments, asked no
questions, given no "thank-yous", nor further acknowledged my presence in
As for me, in this unexpected sequence I had noticed something utterly new
to me: I had spoken in terms of rejecting the logical construct of
, and they had replied in terms of states-and-relations
What connection exists between these two notions?
Before I tell you what I figured out (and this insight I regard that as the
most important I had developed to that date, and probably ever will), let
me focus more explicitly to one advantage which habitually working in the
spirit of E-Prime"bringing out of hiding the agents involved"appears
to have provided me. To see this, please notice the relation with myself I
displayed in the face of the challenge offered by The Professor and his research
group. On the day discussed above, far from convincing me of my own error
and general unworthiness, the startling vehemence of my audience elicited
from me careful observing of them-and-me. Then, by the time everyone else
had left, I had already begun contemplating that unexplained connection I
Now let me tell you a contrasting story, concerning a version of "me" twelve
years earlier, just before I learned some ways to bring general semantics
to bear on my own ways of living.
In 1960, I attended the Summer Seminar/Workshop of the Institute of General
Semantics (as recipient of the Fulkerson Memorial Scholarship). The training
offered there included a permissive discussion group. During one of the sessions,
I got into a squabble with another participant. I responded to that conflict
situation with prolonged discomfortanxiety symptoms and self-reproach.
After some days of this, I mentioned my discomfort out loud during one of
the sessions. The group leader, Lynn Gates, questioned me closely about my
discomfort, and then asked, "What did you assume, that made you so uncomfortable?"
I felt vaguely terrified at the questionthe reasons for terror seemed
vague, the terror did notbut then found that I could answer the question.
"I thought that I had made a fool of myself in front of the group." And, having
handled that challenge, I heaved a sigh of relief.
But Gates had not finished with me. In his most acid tones, he asked, "Well,
are you going to find a way to put that assumption to test, or not?"
This seemed like an even more frightening challenge. But then I saw a way
to do it. I proceeded to poll each of the other participants in turn, asking
first, "Do you remember the incident?" (every one of them said they did);
and second, "Do you think I made a fool of myself in front of the group?"
Each participant answered the second question in a different way, but in terms
that did not match my painful view of the incident. I found no evidence for
the existence of the shared, monolithic, harsh, condemning judgment on me
and my behavior which I had expected. I had assumed that they saw me as a
fool, and that I therefore was a fool. My agonized fantasy of rejection by
my fellow-participants appeared severely off the markdisoriented.
In that immediate situation, this way of testing my own assumption, and finding
it so thoroughly disconfirmed, provided immediate and profound relief. But
more than that, it showed that I had made a beginning in using a method which
I could apply again in any situation that seemed important enough to warrant
the effort. At need, I could disclose my own personal assumptions, and find
ways to put them to test; and could reject and replace the assumptions that
From that point on, I poured my passion into a concerted study of and revision
of my own personal assumptions. In the phrase of Ray Bontrager, one of the
chief presenters at that Seminar/Workshop, I started the process of making
my own life more to my own likingand for three or four years, I kept
written records of things that happened in the process.
At the time, I did not say it this way, but now it appears that I had found-and-created
my own approach to the study of human behavior and our theories of human behavior.
As my domain of study, I had selected what I now refer to as transacting
or, as a run-on phrase, the dealings of one particular human organism-as-a-whole-with-his-environment-at-a-date,
as viewed by a specified observer
That led, eventually, to my writing a theory of human behavior stated in ordinary
scientific English (cited above, endnote 2); and later, to my collaborating
with John F. Randolph, then Fayerweather Professor of Mathematics at the University
of Rochester, to perform a logical analysis on that doctrine. We ended up
framing it as an axiomatic system stated in a set theory notation (also cited
above, endnote 3). This mathematized version of the theory asks and answers
the fundamental question I recited to the research group. In 1968, this ongoing
project also led me to further contact with D. David Bourland, Jr., who encouraged
me to use the E-Prime dialect he had recently proposed. Then, using E-Prime
in my further research helped me to become more sure of my own boundaries,
so that when in 1972 The Professor’s research group burst into uproar, I almost
immediately saw that as a matter of their choices (in response to what I said),
and not directly my own doing.
Now I invite you to compare the two versions of "me" in relation with "myself"
which I have presented, and draw whatever conclusions about the importance
of "bringing out of hiding the agents involved" that to you seem warranted
by the evidence.
Meanwhile, I’ll complete the tale of what I learned from The Professor and
his research group. Remember, I had noticed that when I spoke to them in terms
of rejecting identity
, they replied in terms of states-and-relations
Puzzling over this fascinating observation, at length I remembered that the
anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf has a passage in one of his papers
in which he brings these two notions together. The next morning, I found the
relevant passage. Sometimes, research consists of the art of reading things
very slowly. I spent all morning reading and re-reading that single paragraph
from Whorf’s collected papers.
Just before lunchtime, I saw, and expressed in words, the elusive relation
between those seemingly disparate constructs. This insight draws the relation
between logicfundamental assumptionsand the grammar common to
the western Indo-European (WIE) discursive and mathematical languages (such
as English and set theory).
I can express this insight as the conjunction of three points:
structure of a sentence
Linguists of various schools agree that in a WIE language like English, the
vocabulary consists mostly of items that belong to two main groupings"parts
of speech"sometimes called nouns
, which native
speakers treat as grammatically different. Then a complete sentence
(S) consists of at least one noun or noun-phrase
(NP) coupled with
at least one verb or verb-phrase
|S = NP + VP 1
The cat grinned. (Intransitive pattern) 1A
The cat lashed her tail. (Transitive pattern) 1B
Furthermore, Whorf points out the relation between WIE discursive languages
and our scientific languages, (e.g. mathematical logic):
|What we call "scientific thought" is a specialization of the western
Indo-European type of language... (Whorf, 1956, p. 246)
Thus a well-formed formulation
in the mathematical theory of sets follows
a pattern markedly similar to that of the WIE discursive languages: The vocabulary
of set theory consists almost entirely of noun-cognates (e.g., sets) and verb-cognates
(e.g., relations, such as not
or subset of
); and we combine
at least one term of each type to generate a well-formed formulation:
2. How we
distinguish between noun and verb
|Not-E (Cognate of intransitive pattern) 2A
D Ì E. (Cognate of transitive
In re-reading that passage from Whorf (1956, p. 241), I came to realize thatin
terms of what we do rather than what we say we doas speakers-and-listeners,
writers-and-readers of WIE languages such as English or set theory (whether
or not we subscribe to E-Prime), we distinguish between the nouns
by means of Aristotle’s Law of Identity, which holds that
|What is, is. 3A
C is C . 3B
Then we regard each noun (or noun-phrase) as subject to the Law of Identity,
and so as identical with itself
we regard each verb (or verb-phrase) as not subject to the Law of Identity,
and so as not-self-identical
. Using º
to signify identical with
(or in set theoretic terms, "not only consist
of the same elements but also have the same name"), I can write these two
|NP º NP . 4
VP VP 5
To see this, try substituting the noun-phrase from the discursive test-sentence
(1A) into the two positions in the Law of Identity usually reserved for a
noun-phrase; and then try substituting the verb-phrase from that test-sentence
(1A) into those two positions. In the first instance, we obtain an acceptable
sentencewe speakers of English (outside of E-Prime) feel comfortable
In contrast, when we substitute the verb-phrase from (1A) into the two positions
within the Law of Identity usually reserved for noun-phrases, we obtain
We do not do not regard this as an acceptable "sentence", and do not feel
comfortable saying it.
Likewise, the symbols in set theory follow similar rules. When we try substituting
the noun-cognate from (2A) into a notational version of the Law of Identity,
We regard this as a well-formed formulation. But when we try substituting
the verb-cognate from (2A), we obtain
This we do not regard as well-formed or acceptable.
3. WIE sentence
structure vs. my most fundamental presupposition
As I indicated to The Professor and his research group, as my most fundamental
presupposition, I disallow identity
as a valid relation. But, within
the WIE frame of reference, if I disallow identity
, I remove my ability
to tell the difference between the nouns (or their cognates) and the verbs
(or their cognates). Thereupon, I cannot form a complete sentence by the rules
of WIE grammar, and so, for me, the entire grammar collapsesand with
it, the specializations of WIE languaging: the logics, sciences, philosophies,
jurisprudences, religions, etc., of the WIE tradition. To me in 1972, that
"collapse" proved anything but alarmingit turned six to nine months
of failure into the prelude to a major success. Within my experiencing, research
generally takes place under an injunction: "Solve this problem, Buddyanswer
this questionor quit!" That new insight and the consequent "collapse"
answered a question which had previously stopped me.
After Randolph and I had finished the four long papers we wrote together,
and after three of them appeared in print, I had set about to apply our set
theory calculus of human behaving-and-experiencing (behaving
from the "outside", experiencing
as viewed from the "inside") to other
domains. We had addressed the domain of the transacting of an individual with
his environment. I successfully extended the theory into the domain of the
"doings" or "happenings" of small groups and of large social institutions,
the domain of biological theory and the transacting of non-human organism
with their environments; and made some timid incursions into the physical
sciences and mathematics. In the fall of 1971, I began inquiring into the
logical and mathematical foundations of our theory and our set theory notation.
That proved alarming. I quickly convinced myself that I faced a possible self-contradiction
of a new type, one which arises between the presuppositions underlying my
findings and conclusions, the "content" of the theory, and the presuppositions
underlying the set theory notation I had used to state these findings and
conclusions. For, as I had told The Professor and his group, as my most fundamental
presupposition, I reject identity
(I rely on Korzybski’s non-aristotelian
premises, including the Postulate of Non-identity); whereas, by the premises
of set theory, every set satisfies the modern Logical Axiom of Identity, and
therefore "IS" identical with itself
That sounds like a self-contradiction. And I hold any theory which includes
a self-contradiction as unacceptable.
I spent the rest of the fall of 1971 trying to find some way to get around,
under, over, or through that possible self-contradiction, without success.
Around Christmas of that year, I concluded that probably, I had run afoul
of a matter of principle, and could not do so. I could see only one other
way to proceed furtherI would have to reject and abandon the mathematical
theory of sets, and all other WIE languages, discursive as well as notational,
and generate a new language of known structure, based "from the very beginning"
(whatever that phrase might mean, under these altered circumstances) from
my chosen premises (the non-aristotelian premises of Korzybski).
When I set out to do this, however, I quickly found that I didn’t know how.
No matter how inventive or "outlandish" my efforts seemed when I tried a new
tack, the result ended up "smelling" Western.
But now, some six months later, in light of the recent insight prompted by
contact with The Professor and his group, I had uncovered a principled way
to jettison the WIE frame of referenceabandon the noun/verb distinction;
and with it, the encoded usage of map-territory identity
I could now see that in everything I had tried up till then, I had still included
some cognate of the noun/verb distinction (and therefore, map-territory identity).
Until then, by the way I framed my struggles to break free of the WIE frame
of reference, I had continued to lock myself in.
After figuring out what my encounter with The Professor and his group meant,
however, I saw that that "collapse" of the WIE grammar which I had provoked
actually opened a way for me to develop an alternative frame of reference,
based on non-identity.
In the process, I had disclosed the assumptions underlying the grammar shared
by (or the shared logical structure of) at least one discursive language,
namely, English, (even including E-Prime), and an associated mathematical
language such as set theory. That allowed me to derive a notational "grammar"
from the non-aristotelian premises. Then, in collaboration with a linguist,
the late Ronald V. Harrington, I built up a "Let’s Keep Track of What We Say"
notation on this derived grammar, and with it, an alternative frame of reference
(or "World View"). Subsequently, I have applied this alternative frame of
reference in such a way as to propose fundamental revisions to theories within
the human psycho-social sciences, biology, relativity and quantum theory,
as well as to the foundations of logic and mathematics.
Here I shall briefly set the E-Prime dialect into a wider perspective, centered
on our exponentially increasing knowledge of knowledge. Over a period of not
quite two hundred years, Western scientists have performed increasingly incisive
analyses of aspects of the received WIE world-view, and made increasingly
sweeping proposals for revising itincluding the non-euclidean geometries,
the non-newtonian physics, revised premises for our logics and mathematics,
non-aristotelian systems and general semantics, etc. We have begun developing
an increasingly acute appreciation of the internal connectedness and inter-connectedness
of human viewpoints and human frames of reference.
For the E-Prime dialect, the most fundamental insight comes from Korzybski:
|We start with the negative [non-aristotelian] premise that words are
not the un-speakable objective level, such as the actual objects
outside of our skin and our personal feelings inside our skin.
It follows that the only link between the objective and the verbal world
is exclusively structural, necessitating the conclusion that the only
content of all ‘knowledge’ is structural.
Korzybski expresses this move toward increasingly sweeping departures from
tradition in terms of the construct of linguistic revision
. In line
with the innovations already available when he started writing, he proposes
|...changing not the language, but the structure of language...
Like Aristotle, Korzybski had no formalized notation specific to his frame
of reference, in which to frame his analyses or otherwise pursue his revisionist
goals. His two books and other writings abound in innovative proposals. Reluctantly,
I acknowledge that I must resist the temptation to try to summarize, characterize,
classify, etc., these innovations here. But at the level of overt written
(or spoken) modifications, introduced for the crucial task of "changing ...
of language," Korzybski relies primarily on
|the habitual use of the extensional devices in our evaluational reactions.
By using these devices, we can make our formulations more nearly similar in
structure to what we observe than we can without them. But I point out that
in general, Korzybski does not alter specifically linguistic
does not introduce any new prefix, suffix, infix, nor new endings for any
"parts of speech" such as nouns and/or verbs, etc.; and he neither introduces
nor eliminates entire categories of grammatical forms, entire "parts of speech".
Most students of general semantics have followed Korzybski’s guidance in this
arena, and strive not to change the language, but "only" its structure.
In contrast, when he proposes E-Prime, Bourland does show the courage to alter
linguistic formshe disallows to be
as a verb, or as the copula
(which we perhaps do not "treat" linguistically exactly the way we treat most
As I point out above, I first started using E-Prime in 1968. When I did, I
found that this made my native language and my mathematical frame of reference
seem at least a little unfamiliar. As I explored the capabilities and limitations
of the new set theory calculus of human behaving-and-experiencing, this slight
unfamiliarity made it easier for me to detect and at least attempt to de-fang
and elude linguistically-determined restrictions. But even though I had adopted
E-Prime, like the majority of exponents of general semantics, I had restricted
most of my attempt to develop a thorough-going non-aristotelian frame of reference
to the domain of what already existed, linguistically. I had sought to "[change]
not the language, but the structure
When, in the fall of 1971, I disclosed a possible contradiction between the
presuppositions of the "content" (the findings of my explorations in theory)
vs. the presuppositions of the notation I used to state this "content", then
I abruptly shifted the focus of my activities. As noted, I inferred that if
I wanted to press on with my explorations, I had only one procedure available
to meto jettison set theory and all other WIE languages (discursive
as well as formalized), and build up a language of known structure (possibly
notational rather than discursive) based "from the very beginning" on the
non-aristotelian premises of Korzybski. And that meant that by the time I
had framed that inference, I had already called into question, and revised
the construct of linguistic revision
As it turned out, I found ways to derive a notational "grammar" from the non-aristotelian
premises, and (in a collaborative setting) to generate a "Let’s Keep Track
of What We Say" notation based on that derived grammar.
In his 1921 book Language
, Edward Sapir compares literary with scientific
modes of expression. When he gets to the topic of science, he writes:
|The proper medium of scientific expression is therefore a generalized
language that may be defined as a symbolic algebra of which all known
languages are translations. One can adequately translate scientific
literature because the original scientific expression is itself a translation.
In an unexpected way, our non-standard notation may turn out to fulfill
Sapir’s vision. Preliminary findings indicate that our non-standard notation
satisfies the criterion of generality in relation to at least two
or three other languages, discursive English, the WIE mathematical theory
of sets, and discursive Chinese.
I know of no precedentno one else who has even discussed the possibility
of deriving a grammar from known presuppositions and of then building up
a notational language on that derived grammar. However flawed the present
instance of this notational language may appear on more extended scrutiny,
this non-standard notation and the alternative frame of reference which
underlies it do seem to open up new possibilities for humans. In particular,
these accomplishments, which of course still amount to only small beginnings,
still suggest that we humans have it within our grasp to generate a single
axiomatic frame of reference which could properly house virtually all forms
of systematized human knowledge.
As time-binding humans, we only need to invent the wheel once. I trust that
my peers and/or successors will sooner or later extend this new possibility,
and not only make the non-standard notation useful for certain tasks that
we cannot accomplish in any other waybut also use this precedent to
generate a discursive language based on some grammar derived from known