Purging Prepositions Using P-Prime

by Donald E. Simanek

English teachers know that students find prepositions the single most difficult "part of speech". Many prepositions have a dozen distinct meanings, some of them incompatible.

Prepositions indicate relations between things. Science deals with relations, too, but requires more precision than prepositions can provide. Even physics textbooks sometimes use prepositions as part of technical names that can mislead students, forming inadequate or incorrect concepts. Consider the word "of". Some physics textbooks use the term "acceleration of gravity". That makes no sense. Does gravity accelerate? This term really means "the acceleration due to gravity". Many textbooks do use this better name, which doesn't invite misinterpretation.

Could we avoid such problems by purging certain prepositions when we write or speak? Could we really get along and express our ideas without some of those slippery prepositions?

English without the "verbs of being", has been around quite a while, and has the name E-prime. It purges the words be, being, are, and am and their variants. Could we speak and write English without the "troublesome" prepositions, of, to, by, in, at, from, with, and for? Yes, we can, and I have named it P-prime. The following example shows on the left a short essay I wrote without concern about either E-prime or P-prime. On the right I show a version rewritten using the restrictions of both E-prime and P-prime. It retains the original document's organization, meaning and sense. I even threw in some additional stuff, making the document a bit longer.


Original version

Sometimes it seems a losing battle to combat the decline of the English language. We see examples in everyday conversation and writing, books, the media, and even in our educational institutions. As the language deteriorates into imprecise flabbiness, so does our ability to express ideas. Everyday discourse as well as scholarly communiation suffer the consequences. The consequences especially afflict science education, for science requires precision of thought and expression.

Physics, for example, challenges students, even without having to also surmount semantic roadblocks. While we claim physics is a "precise science" since physics strives for the greatest possible precision of measurement, physicists as a class are notoriously less precise when speaking and writing about the subject. When they speak to each other they frequently adopt a conversational mode so abbreviated, with so many details left out, that anyone not working in that particular field finds their language incomprehensible. Scientists must do this, of course, or they would spend hours explaining things that are, to them, trivial and well-known. They communicate effectively with each other through a common base of knowledge and agreed-upon verbal conventions, which are seldom ever written down. They play a very good "mind-reading" game. Each participant hears what the other means, not what he says. And it works! But outsiders are baffled.

Many physicists have extreme difficulty when they try to explain physics to outsiders. They are not used to spelling out everything, and impatient at having to do so. It seems to be something like trying to explain economics to a four-year-old. Some have said that, for this reason, physics is the worst-taught subject. This may be so. But those who can learn physics, overcoming these difficulties, and become physicists, often can't understand why others find it so hard.

Some of these difficulties are unavoidable. Our language didn't evolve to serve the needs of science. But there is no excuse for some of the imprecise and misleading expressions some textbooks freely use. There is little excuse for a proliferation of words that all mean the same thing. There is no excuse for using a vague or imprecise word when a perfectly good precise one is available for more clearly expressing the idea.

E-Prime and P-Prime version

Many have expressed despair that the English language, as used in everyday conversation, writing, books, the media, and even in our educational institutions, has seriously declined. As the language deteriorates into imprecise flabbiness, we can no longer express ideas precisely and unambiguously. This has serious enough consequences affecting everyday discourse, but science education suffers greatly. Flabby language serves only as a very blunt and ineffective tool. Science requires precise thought and expression.

Learning physics has enough intrinsic difficulties without adding the complications that semantic roadblocks cause. We often call physics a "precise science", meaning that physics seeks the greatest possible measurement precision and accuracy. Yet physicists as a class often show considerable carelessness and imprecision when speaking and writing about their subject, especially when physicist colleagues "talk physics" together. In such situations they frequently adopt a conversational mode so abbreviated, leaving out so many details, that any outsider hearing them would find their speech incomprehensible. Scientists must do this, else they'd spend hours explaining things that they consider obvious or trivial. They communicate effectively through a common knowledge base and agreed-upon verbal conventions. You won't find these written down anywhere. Scientists play a very good "mind-reading" game: each hears what the other meant, inferring the unspoken words and mentally correcting the words that weren't precisely chosen. This works, but outsiders remain baffled.

Many physicists have extreme difficulty explaining physics using language outsiders can understand. They do not like "spelling out" everything as they talk. They get impatient when others expect such completeness and clarity. They feel frustration, considering such communication as futile as explaining economics using language a four-year-old might understand. For this reason, some consider physics the worst-taught school subject. But I suspect one can find similar teaching deficiencies, whatever subject you look at. Some students can surmount these difficulties, and do learn physics. Those who become physicists often cannot understand why others find the subject so difficult.

Certain language difficulties and deficiencies have no remedy. Natural language cannot fully meet scientists' needs. For that reason, mathematics serves as the working language of science. Still, we cannot excuse the imprecise and misleading expressions that textbooks commonly use, nor those that teachers sometimes use. We cannot excuse a textbook author or teacher who proliferates words that all mean the same thing or uses imprecise words when our language contains more precise words, which would express the idea better.


Not all prepositions cause difficulties. Even those I call "troublesome" actually do no harm if the context removes ambiguity. But the example above illustrates that we can get along without most of them quite easily. A reader pointed out that I used the preposition "in" three times. It is one of those prepositions that seldom causes trouble.

A Wordperfect 5.1 macro aided the process. It searched the document, flagging any occurance of those forbidden words that I specified. Manual editing and rewrite completed the conversion. Still, I don't guarantee I didn't miss any offending words.

Reader feedback.

A perceptive reader took on the challenge to improve the example still more, for he noticed that my rewritten version was more verbose than necessary. He did a good job.

Dear Donald E. Simanek,

Your article, "Purging Prepositions Using P-Prime," intrigued me. Approaching E-Prime as a newcomer, I face some difficulty writing peices compatible with it while maintaining fluency, but I often succeed nonetheless. I fear that P-Prime, on the other hand, requires a skill-set I have yet to attain, judging by my massive migraine, though I consider it a rewarding challenge.

Your article compares and contrasts an original writing and an E-Prime and P-Prime version—as you know—but I think this section lacks the persuasive power you intended, Mr. Simanek. The E-Prime and P-Prime version contains many more words than the original version while seemingly disregarding the P-Prime prohibition against the word "in". The word "without" essentially means "not with," so P-Prime might also prohibit that, though your article does not say so. With these difficulties in mind, I decided I would rewrite it by condensing it to fewer words and removing the ins and withouts:

Many express despair that English—as books, writings, the media, everyday conversations, and our educational institutions use it—has seriously declined. As language deteriorates into imprecise flab, we can no longer express ideas precisely and unanimbiguously. This negatively affects everyday discourse, but science education suffers more. Flabby language serves only as a blunt and ineffective tool. Science needs precise thought and expression.

Learning physics poses enough difficulties when not facing the complications that semantic roadblocks cause. We often call physics a "precise science", meaning it seeks the greatest possible measurement precision and accuracy, yet physicists often show a notable carelessness and imprecision when speaking and writing about physics. When they "talk physics" among themselves, they adopt a conversational style, leaving out so many details that an outsider hearing them would find their speech incomprehensible. Scientists must do this, lest they spend hours explaining what they consider obvious or trivial. They communicate effectively through a shared knowledge base and agreed-upon verbal conventions you will not find written down. Scientists play a great "mind reading" game: each hears what the other meant, inferring the unspoken words and mentally correcting the words their colleagues chose imprecisely. This works, but outsiders remain baffled.

Many physicists feel frustrated explaining physics using language outsiders can understand. They dislike "spelling out" everything and get impatient when others expect clarity and completeness. They consider such communication as futile as explaining economics using language a four-year-old might understand. Hence, some consider physics the worst-taught school subject. I suspect one can find similar teaching deficiencies, whatever subject one inspects. Some students surmount such difficulties and learn physics and those who become physicists often don't understand why others find the subject so difficult.

Some language difficulties and deficiencies have no remedy. Natural language cannot fully meet scientists' needs. Hence, mathematics serves as science's working language. Still, we cannot excuse the imprecise and misleading expressions that textbooks commonly use, nor those that teachers sometimes use. We cannot excuse a teacher or textbook author who proliferates words meaning the same thing or uses imprecise wording when more precise phraseology would better express the ideas.

Sincerely,
Jesse R. McCracken


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