E-Prime (short for English-Prime or English Prime,[1] sometimes denoted É or E′) is a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms.

Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing.[2] A number of other scholars have criticized E-Prime's utility.


D. David Bourland Jr., who had studied under Alfred Korzybski, devised E-Prime as an addition to Korzybski's general semantics in the late 1940s.[3] Bourland published the concept in a 1965 essay entitled "A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime" (originally published in General Semantics Bulletin). The essay quickly generated controversy within the general semantics field,[4] partly because practitioners of general semantics[who?] sometimes saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages.[citation needed]

Bourland collected and published three volumes of essays in support of his innovation. The first (1991), co-edited by Paul Dennithorne Johnston, bore the title: To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology.[5] For the second, More E-Prime: To Be or Not II, published in 1994, he added a third editor, Jeremy Klein. Bourland and Johnston then edited a third book, E-Prime III: a third anthology, published in 1997.

Different functions of "to be"Edit

In the English language, the verb 'to be' (also known as the copula) has several distinct functions:

  • identity, of the form "noun copula definite-noun" [The cat is my only pet]; [The cat is Garfield]
  • class membership, of the form "definite-noun copula noun" [Garfield is a cat]
  • class inclusion, of the form "noun copula noun" [A cat is an animal]
  • predication, of the form "noun copula adjective" [The cat is furry]
  • auxiliary, of the form "noun copula verb" [The cat is sleeping]; [The cat is being bitten by the dog]. The examples illustrate two different uses of 'be' as an auxiliary. In the first, 'be' is part of the progressive aspect, used with "-ing" on the verb; in the second, it is part of the passive, as indicated by the perfect participle of a transitive verb.
  • existence, of the form "there copula noun" [There is a cat]
  • location, of the form "noun copula place-phrase" [The cat is on the mat]; [The cat is here]

Bourland sees specifically the "identity" and "predication" functions as pernicious, but advocates eliminating all forms for the sake of simplicity. In the case of the "existence" form (and less idiomatically, the "location" form), one might (for example) simply substitute the verb "exists". Other copula-substitutes in English include taste, feel, smell, sound, grow, remain, stay, and turn, among others a user of E-prime might use instead of to be.[6][7]


Standard English      E-Prime

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
New American Standard Bible, Matthew 5:3
  The poor in spirit receive blessings, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
— modified from the New American Standard Bible[8]

Words not used in E-prime include: be, being, been, am, is, isn't, are, aren't, was, wasn't, were, and weren't.

Contractions formed from a pronoun and a form of to be are also not used, including: I'm, you're, we're, they're, he's, she's, it's, there's, here's, where's, how's, what's, who's, and that's. E-Prime also prohibits contractions of to be found in nonstandard dialects of English, such as ain't.

One could rewrite the different functions of "to be" as follows:

  • "The cat is my only pet": "I have only a pet cat".
  • "The cat is Garfield": "I call my cat Garfield".
  • "Garfield is a cat": "I call my cat Garfield".
  • "A cat is an animal": "'Cat' denotes an animal".
  • "The cat is furry": "The cat feels furry".
  • "The cat is sleeping": "The cat sleeps".
  • "The dog is chasing the cat": "The dog chases the cat".
  • "There is a cat": "I can see a cat".
  • "The cat is on the mat": "The cat sits on the mat".
  • "The cat is here": "I have the cat with me".


Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility of misunderstanding or conflict.[9][10]

Kellogg and Bourland describe misuse of the verb to be as creating a "deity mode of speech", allowing "even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things".[11]

Psychological effectsEdit

While teaching at the University of Florida, Alfred Korzybski counseled his students to

eliminate the infinitive and verb forms of "to be" from their vocabulary, whereas a second group continued to use "I am," "You are," "They are" statements as usual. For example, instead of saying, "I am depressed," a student was asked to eliminate that emotionally primed verb and to say something else, such as, "I feel depressed when ..." or "I tend to make myself depressed about ..."[12]

Korzybski observed improvement "of one full letter grade" by "students who did not generalize by using that infinitive".[12]

Albert Ellis advocated the use of E-Prime when discussing psychological distress to encourage framing these experiences as temporary (see also Solution focused brief therapy) and to encourage a sense of agency by specifying the subject of statements.[13] According to Ellis, rational emotive behavior therapy "has favored E-Prime more than any other form of psychotherapy and I think it is still the only form of therapy that has some of its main books written in E-Prime".[14] However, Ellis did not always use E-Prime because he believed it interferes with readability.[13]

Works written in E-PrimeEdit


Many authors have questioned E-Prime's effectiveness at improving readability and reducing prejudice (Lakoff, 1992; Murphy, 1992; Parkinson, 1992; Kenyon, 1992; French, 1992, 1993; Lohrey, 1993). These authors observed that a communication under the copula ban can remain extremely unclear and imply prejudice, while losing important speech patterns, such as identities and identification. Further, prejudices and judgments that are made are more difficult to notice or refute. James D. French, a computer programmer at the University of California, Berkeley, summarized ten arguments against E-Prime (in the context of general semantics) as follows:[17]

  1. The elimination of a whole class of sentences results in fewer alternatives and is likely to make writing less, rather than more, interesting. One can improve bad writing more by reducing use of the verb 'to be' than by eliminating it.
  2. "Effective writing techniques" are not relevant to general semantics as a discipline, and therefore should not be promoted as general semantics practice.
  3. The context often ameliorates the possible harmful effects from the use of the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication, so it is not necessary to eliminate all such sentences. For example, "George is a Judge" in response to a question of what he does for a living would not be a questionable statement.
  4. To be statements do not only convey identity but also asymmetrical relations ("X is higher than Y"); negation ("A is not B"); location ("Berlin is in Germany"); auxiliary ("I am going to the store") etc., forms we would also have to sacrifice.
  5. Eliminating to be from English has little effect on eliminating identity. For example, a statement of apparently equal identification, "The silly ban on copula continues," can be made without the copula assuming an identity rather than asserting it, consequently hampering our awareness of it.
  6. Identity-in-the-language is not the same thing as the far more important identity-in-reaction (identification). General semantics cuts the link between the two through the practice of silence on the objective levels, adopting a self-reflexive attitude, e.g., "as I see it" "it seems to me" etc., and by the use of quotation marks—without using E-Prime.
  7. The advocates of E-Prime have not proven that it is easier to eliminate the verb to be from the English language than it is to eliminate just the is-of-identity and the is-of-predication. It may well be easier to do the latter for many people.
  8. One of the best languages for time-binding is mathematics, which relies heavily on the notion of equivalence and equality. For the purposes of time-binding, it may be better to keep to be in the language while only cutting the link between identity-in-the-language and identification-in-our-reactions.
  9. E-Prime makes no distinction between statements that cross the principles of general semantics and statements that do not. It lacks consistency with the other tenets of general semantics and should not be included into the discipline.

According to an article (written in E-Prime and advocating a role for E-Prime in ESL and EFL programs) published by the Office of English Language Programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department of the United States, "Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing."[18]

See alsoEdit


  • Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1991). To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics. p. 185. ISBN 0-918970-38-5.
  • Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1997). E-Prime III! : a third anthology. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics. ISBN 0-918970-46-6.
  • Bourland, D. David, Jr., Jeremy Klein, and Paul Dennithorne Johnstone, (editors) (1994) More E-Prime: To Be or Not II. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics.
  • French, James D. (1992) The Top Ten Arguments against E-Prime. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p175-79
  • ________________ (1993) The Prime Problem with General Semantics. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p326-35
  • Kenyon, Ralph (1992) E-Prime: The Spirit and the Letter.ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p185-88
  • Lakoff, Robin T. (1992) Not Ready for Prime Time. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p142-45
  • Lohrey, Andrew (1993) E-Prime, E-Choice, E-Chosen. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v50 n3 p346-50
  • Murphy, Cullen (1992) "To Be" in Their Bonnets: A Matter of Semantics. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, v49 n2 p125-30 Sum 1992
  • Murphy, Cullen (1992) "'To Be' in Their Bonnets: A matter of semantics" The Atlantic Monthly February 1992
  • Parkinson, Theresa (1992). "Beyond E-Prime". ETC: A Review of General Semantics. 49 (2): 192–195.


  1. ^ Cascini, Gaetano, ed. (2004). TRIZ Future Conference 2004: Florence, 3-5 November 2004. Firenze University Press. ISBN 88-8453-220-5. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  2. ^ Zimmerman, Daniel (Fall 2001). "E-Prime as a Revision Strategy". ETC: A Review of General Semantics 58.3. pp. 340–347. Retrieved 2009-01-10. Using E-Prime, I require students to paraphrase about half their sentences—admittedly, in a special way, but using as stylistic models the best of the rest of their sentences, already written in 'native' E-Prime. The more gracefully and effectively they learn to do this, the more they begin to sound like themselves as writers, rather than like all the other writers around them sound about half the time.
  3. ^ Cullen Murphy, "Just curious: essays", 1995, ISBN , 039570099X p. 78
  4. ^ Johnston, P.D.; Bourland, D.D.; Klein, J. (1994). More E-prime: To be Or Not II. International Society for General Semantics. ISBN 978-0-918970-40-4. Retrieved 2021-02-07.
  5. ^ Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1991). To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. San Francisco: International Society for General Semantics. p. 185. ISBN 0-918970-38-5.
  6. ^ Miller, Sally. “SEVENTH AND NINTH GRADE WRITING EXERCISES: Candy, Biographies, and E-Prime.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 56, no. 1, 1999, pp. 91–101. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42579866. Accessed 7 Feb. 2021.
  7. ^ Bourland, D. David; Johnston, Paul Dennithorne, eds. (1997). E-Prime III! : a third anthology. Concord, California: International Society for General Semantics. ISBN 0-918970-46-6.
  8. ^ Maas, David. "The New American Standard Bible in E-Prime - The Gospel and Acts" (PDF). WebCite. The Institute of General Semantics. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 10, 2013. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
  9. ^ Bourland, D. David Jr. (1989). "To be or not to be: E-Prime as a tool for critical thinking". ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Institute of General Semantics. 46 (3): 202–211. Archived from the original on 2008-01-03. In writing and talking [E‑Prime] provides a method for materially reducing ‘the human misunderstanding’.
  10. ^ Lundin, Leigh (2013-03-03). "Professional Tips: To Be or Not". On É. Miami: SleuthSayers.
  11. ^ Kellogg, E. W.; Bourland Jr., D. David (1990). "Working with E-Prime: Some Practical Notes" (PDF). Et Cetera. 47 (4): 376–392. JSTOR 42577258. Retrieved 2015-04-06.
  12. ^ a b Ellis, Albert (2010). Albert Ellis: Evolution of a Revolution. Barricade Books.
  13. ^ a b Ellis, Albert (2001). Feeling Better, Getting Better, Staying Better: Profound Self-Help Therapy. Impact Publishers. p. 2. ISBN 9781886230354.
  14. ^ Ellis, Albert (1998). Ellis, Albert; Blau, Shaun (eds.). The Albert Ellis Reader: A Guide to Well-Being Using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Citadel Press. p. 312. ISBN 978-0-8065-2032-2. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  15. ^ "The New American Standard Bible in E-Prime – The Institute of General Semantics".
  16. ^ "Scoundrel Days: A Memoir". Penguin Books Australia. Archived from the original on 20 August 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  17. ^ Compare: French, James D (1992). "The Top Ten Arguments Against E-Prime". ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Institute of General Semantics. 49 (2): 75–79.
  18. ^ Herbert, John C. "English Prime as an Instructional Tool in Writing Classes". English Teaching Forum Online. United States Department of State. Archived from the original on 2006-10-07. Retrieved 2009-10-06. When applying the aforementioned ideas to any writing assignment, teachers must make sure their students know that the proposed set of guidelines represents only one means to an end and does not present an end in itself. Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing. However, introducing E-Prime restrictions for at least one assignment forces students to spend more time with their essays, to think critically about acceptable grammar and vocabulary, and to search for new, or nearly forgotten, vocabulary.

External linksEdit