Reduced English


by Dr. Donald E. Simanek, Lock Haven University.
This essay originally appeared in The Vector, 20, Fall, 1991, p. 15.
The English language contains a far greater range of possibilities than most of us ever use. This richness can complicate the process of writing. A writer must continually evaluate many alternate ways to express each idea, then decide which best serves the purpose.

A few daring writers have even deliberately reduced the richness of English by taking something out. How about taking out something that appears quite often, like one of the 26 letters of the alphabet? To write clear prose that excludes particular letters (called a "lipogram") challenges a writer's creativity. Of all the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, "e" appears most frequently (5 times the frequency of any other letter), so to eliminate "e" ought to be the greatest challenge. To write even one paragraph without using "e" taxes one's ingenuity, but how about a whole novel without even one "e"? That novel idea certainly seems hopeless.

Ernest Vincent Wright managed to do just that in his novel Gadsby, A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E", Wetzel Publishing Co., Inc. 1939. [The "E" in quotes doesn't count, nor does the fact that the author's name contains "e" three times.]

Wright claims, in his introduction, that "this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down..." [Appearances of "e" in the book's introduction don't count either.]

He lists some of the difficulties:

    ...the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with "-ed."

    The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?

Why did Wright do it?

    [Not]...through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that "it can't be done..." This book may prove a valuable aid to school children in English composition.

If you wish to experience how well this works, look at an excerpt from Gadsby.

Indeed, a severe self-imposed limitation of this sort forces a writer to devise options to the ordinary methods of expression, and to employ ingenious stratagems to circumvent the "usual" way of saying things.

How about throwing out some words from the language? Let's not make it easy; we must eliminate words frequently used.

Consider the forms of the verb 'to be': 'be', 'been', 'is', 'are', 'am', 'was', and 'were'. Semanticists have long recognized that these words contribute to imprecision of expression, ambiguity, and even logical mistakes. Some advocate eliminating all verbs of being, all forms of the 'is' of identity and the 'is' of predication. The resulting "purified" English carries the name "E-prime."

Dr. D. David Bourland, Jr., a student of the general semanticist, Alfred Korzybski, developed E-prime. A number of books use E-prime, including: Overcoming Religion, by David Mills (Citadel, 1981) and A New Guide to Rational Living, by Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper (Melvin Powers, 1979; Wishire Book Co., 1961). Korzybski's own book Science and Society (1933) advocates E-prime, but does not use it!

The idea predates semanticists, however. The Lakota-Dakota Indian language had no verbs for 'is' or 'to be', and those folks managed to talk to each other, to carry out the communications of everyday life, without noticing any deficiency in their language.

Philosophers find E-prime interesting, since once you eliminate "be" words you can't even say many of the classic logical paradoxes! You can't pose stupid questions like "What is the meaning of life?" or "Who am I?" Most poetry cannot be rewritten in E-prime. You can't utter philosophicsl pseudoprofundities like "I think, therefore I am." I consider these beneficial results strongly argue in favor of the adoption of E-prime. Throw out "My love is like a red, red rose." Such constructions encourage vague, imprecise, misleading, ambiguous, and foolish writing masquerading as profundity. We'd have to throw out most of Shakespeare, which I'd consider no great loss. Into the trash would go volumes of political speeches, advertising copy, and song lyrics, from opera to rock. Again, no serious cultural loss.

We generally use 'be' words to equate things. Most of the time we equate things that we shouldn't. How does the poet's love object resemble a rose? Does she have thorns? Does her complexion appear red? Does she smell bad? Does her beauty fade quickly? When one examines such foolish utterances they collapse into meaninglessness. This characteristic of poetry would cause little harm but for the fact that many people take such expressions seriously. Indeed, the average person commonly mistakes ambiguity for profundity. This weakness of the human mind makes people easy prey to advertisers, demagogues and snake-oil salesmen.

Even without the extreme remedy of completely adopting E-prime, the underlying principle of avoidance of 'be' forms can benefit anyone's writing. For an exercise, select something you have written, then rewrite it in E-prime. As you rework the sentences to remove the 'be' forms, you will discover, perhaps to your surprise, that the new version gains clarity and vigor. You'll discover exactly how the 'be' words contributed to flabbiness of expression. In some cases a 'be' word may not appear explicitly, but still lurks in hiding, implicitly present in the thought. You will, of course, not allow yourself that manner of cheating! Don't allow an 'is' to hide behind an apostrophe as in 'it's' or 'what's.' Sometimes you'll find something you can't rework, generally because it didn't really say anything! If very little remains of the original document after such pruning, perhaps it had no merit at all.

Finally, in case you haven't already noticed, this entire essay (aside from the quoted passages) conforms to the requirements of E-prime.

You may now read he entire text of Gadsby online.

Perhaps you consider E-prime conservative. How about eliminating a lot of those pesky prepositions? To see how this radical notion works, see Purging Prepositions Using P-Prime.

For more information about e-prime, see An E-Prime Primer and E-Prime in Negotiation and Therapy.

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