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
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.
Sometimes it seems a losing battle to combat the decline of the
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
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
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.
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.
Jesse R. McCracken
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