By Karen Holmes, www.simplycommunicated.com
To be or not to be? A famous question, yes, yet did you know that remembering “not to be” can improve your writing? Avoiding “to be” verbs, a discipline known as E-Prime, livens things up and makes your writing more precise at the same time.
What exactly should you try to avoid? As a reminder, the “to be” family includes be, is, am, are, was, were, been, being; plus contractions — ’m, ’s, and ’re.
Sound tough to do? It is (oops, I mean, “It can seem so.”). Without these stalwart standbys, composing your prose takes some creative thinking and a little extra time, but your readers will thank you for it. E-Prime sentences join an elite minority: Studies show that from 25 to 50 percent of English sentences use a “to be” form.
To help illustrate the point, some samples follow.
To be form: Her singing voice is beautiful.
E-Prime: She sings beautifully. (shorter, more precise, more active)
To be form: The stars are bright white dots.
E-Prime: The stars appear as bright white dots. (more accurate)
To be form: Your application will be approved in 30 days.
E-Prime: We will approve your application in 30 days. (changes from passive voice to active, more informative, more personal)
E-Prime helps clarify thought for the writer and therefore, delivers clearer meaning for the reader. It also challenges the writer to come up with stronger alternatives to the bland “to be’s”. For example, take this sentence: “This movie was wonderful!” It tells us that someone liked the movie, but fails to explicitly explain how it personally touched the reviewer. A more thoughtful sentence, such as, “This movie gave me goosebumps and made me want to hug someone!” certainly packs more punch. (continued)
Lazy writers may just settle for the first alternative. Those who take the time to discover the best sentence each time find their reward in satisfied readers.
In his Guide to Grammar and Style (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu), Jack Lynch agrees, saying:
Overuse of verbs of being makes writing lifeless, and no one should object to more action verbs. In fact, beginning writers may profit from the exercise of removing all the verbs of being from their writing, since it forces them to find more forceful means of expression.
Does this mean that you should use E-Prime all the time? Probably not, though some scientists and philosophers argue in favor of writing—and even speaking—in E-Prime exclusively. Writers, however, should consider that it enhances interest and precision. On the other hand, employing E-Prime religiously can sound stiff. Sometimes, the “to be” verbs just work better. Charles T. Low ( HYPERLINK "http://www.ctlow.ca/E-Prime/E-Prime.html" http://www.ctlow.ca/E-Prime/E-Prime.html) states that if the use of E-Prime “does not clarify thought, nor enhance meaning” but only “constitutes blind rule-following,” then it defeats its own purpose. I agree. In my writing, I sometimes purposefully cull out the verbs of being (as in this article) and other times, use them willy nilly. Depends on how energetic I feel!
In addition to improving your writing, you just might experience further benefits. E-Prime’s originator, D. David Bourland, Jr. says, “I have come to suspect that writing — at least — in E-Prime can significantly increase the number and qualities of one’s neural pathways. … in addition to having a beneficial effect on one’s creativity, this effort would also enhance the measured IQ.”
What better argument for trying it right now, huh? (Wait a minute, please read the rest of this newsletter first)!
By the way, E-Prime appeared around 1949, long before someone established the current meaning of “e” (as in e-mail). Bourland says, “The name comes from the equation E' = E-e, where E represents the words of the English language, and e represents the inflected forms of ‘to be’.” If you want to learn more, Bourland wrote at least three books about and in E-Prime, most recently E-Prime III: A Third Anthology.