The Spirit and the Letter

by Ralph E. Kenyon Jr.(2)

March 31, 1992

Ever since I first read about E-prime, I have made an analogy with the familiar distinction between the letter of the law and its spirit. I make a similar distinction in the use (and misuse) of E-prime. One can use E-prime by conforming to the letter of its prescription to not use any form of the verb 'to be' (3) while committing all manner of identification, which E-prime ostensibly aims to eliminate. It is also possible for one to sprinkle one's formulations liberally with various forms of 'to be' while scrupulously avoiding identification.

In my interpretation or understanding, one uses E-prime in order to make clear who makes what judgements. E-prime says "say who says so." E-prime sentences should reveal who makes what judgements, not conceal them. "Take responsibility for your judgements; state them openly."

Applying the "Letter/Spirit" distinction. Let me apply the "Letter/Spirit" distinction in the analysis of one statement put forth as an example of E-prime. In her concluding paragraph, Elaine Johnson presents the following sentence as an example of one of her high school student's new-found ability to write in E-prime.

I found the movie more rewarding than the novel. (4)

While some might evaluate this sentence as a good example of E-prime, I do not think it satisfies the spirit of E-prime very well. When one finds something, one usually finds it in some place in this case, in a different category of (more) rewarding things than the category of rewarding things in which one found the novel. Moreover, the sentence treats "rewarding" as some characteristic of the novel that one can discover or find. I think that even the choice of the adjective 'rewarding', which directly modifies 'movie' and implicitly modifies novel' misleads readers in the direction of attending to objects and properties of objects.

Consider, for a moment, the sentence the above sentence rather obviously derives from:

The movie was more rewarding than the novel (was).

This sentence asserts the existence of a relation between too things. I certainly disapprove of the above sentence more than I disapprove of the following one:

I found the movie to be more rewarding than (I found) the novel (to be).

This sentence at least includes explicit reference to a speaker (I), and paraphrases to E' readily, by simply making the verb 'to be' implicit by omission.

I found the movie more rewarding than the novel.

Still, the term 'finds' externalizes one's attention to "what one finds"; one generally "finds" a thing. I offer the term 'evaluate' as better indicating the judgement involved.

I evaluate the movie as more rewarding than the novel.

But even this still suggests a comparative judgement about properties of objects.

Let's get "rewarding" back into direct personal experience and acknowledge more explicitly what we usually mean by "being rewarded" we like how we feel about it. Would you consider the following paraphrase too direct and simple?

I liked the movie better than I liked the novel.

This sentence most directly presents my understanding of the spirit of E-prime. The speaker ('I') takes direct responsibility with an active verb ('like') and presents his/her own comparative judgement (better).

But we must all walk before we can run, and crawl before we can walk. So, I suppose the offered sentence makes a step in the right direction. The above analysis shows a sequence of paraphrases, on a simple theme, going from "not-very-E-prime-like-at-all" to "very-E-prime-like".

Abusing E-prime. I perceive some people as "abusing" rather than using E-prime. One can perform simple substitutions on sentences to replace the verb 'to be' with a direct substitute while not eliminating the identification at all. Such substitutions constitute, in my opinion, mere baby-steps in the right direction. But when someone claims that they "use" E-prime, as if it were an "all or none" (two-valued) choice, I get annoyed, especially if I see them just making, what I call "euphemistic" simple substitutions for 'to be'. "Exists as" indeed, I say! One can abuse E-prime because one can eliminate the verb 'to be' without eliminating identification. I say that it is equally possible to eliminate identification without eliminating all forms of the verb 'to be'.

Identification without 'to be'. The syntactic device of a complement (objective or nominative) does the job quite well. Here are some examples. "John, the commie, did so-and-so". She went to see Murphy, the butcher." The verbs 'qualifies as' and 'exists as' have been used in some general semantics writings as direct substitutes for 'is'. 'Exists as' is a particularly obvious example, in view of the fact that one of the meanings of the verb 'to be' is "to exist", and when something "exists" as something else it is taking the place of that other thing. Of course one can "identify" the verb 'identify' as the most obvious identification not using the verb 'to be'.

To be avoiding identification. One can be using the verb 'to be' while avoiding identification. The auxiliary form, such as 'is' in 'is using', or in 'is running' does not identify the subject with any thing or category. If we avoid using 'to be' as a linking verb connecting a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective with a subject, we will be avoiding identifying the subject with the nominative or the adjective. "The color is green", or "That room is the bathroom", are among the example sentences to be avoided.

Desirable identification. There are times when identification is desirable. How happy would you be with someone who refuses to give you the conventional name for something? Inquire of someone their given name... You ask for the symbol by which to "identify" him or her. How do you teach kids the names of things without implicit or explicit identification? Names are, after all, the means by which we communicate the "identity" of things or people. "Who is the speaker?" or "Who speaks?" asks for something other than the sensory experiences that the asker already has.

Ok, I have pontificated enough concerning my view that E' is not always desirable, and that it can be misused. In general, I favor the spirit of E'. I'd like to see it used more often, but with careful attention to the spirit of E' (as I understand it).


  1. The idea for this paper occurred to me a number of years ago. It was finally written on March 31, 1992, and was first published in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Vol. 49, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 185-188.
  2. Ralph Kenyon was awarded his dissertation in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he applied general semantics to develop a new resolution for Zeno's paradoxes.
  3. The use of quotation marks in this article conforms to the convention that is standard in the academic writings of philosophy, linguistics and mathematics. Single quotes (') are used to indicate that the word or phrase itself is being discussed. Double quotes (") are used when quoting text and as the extensional device to indicate that the word or phrase may be being used in a non-standard sense (scare quotes).
  4. Elaine C. Johnson, Discovering E-Prime, in To Be or Not, edited by D. David Bourland and Paul Dennithorne Johnson, International Society for General Semantics, San Francisco, 1991, p. 6.


Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics

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