Troubleshooting and Documenting
Code in E-Prime
by William Porquet, M.A.
E-prime comprises a subset of standard English without the verb "to be"
and its associated forms (is, was, am, were, be, been, being, etc.).
Can you imagine writing and speaking without a word to define "being"?
writers may find communication tricky without the verb "to be". Why
would anyone do this? Communication in E-Prime has the potential to
lively and concise. In my writing experience, the process of purging
all the implied "isness of identity" creates clearer, more critical
thinking, often resulting in better communication, evaluation, and
Most importantly, for the purpose of this essay, I suggest that the
implication of identity in "isness" can create logistic traps for
technical troubleshooting or documentation. I have structured this
essay in the
form of a dialog between two people, one who uses standard English with
the verb "to be" ("E") and another who uses E-Prime ("EP").
E: So why should I speak and write in E-Prime? Would I be a better
EP: The very question you just asked implied an equivalence between
yourself and a permanent state of perfected communicator. You may not
have intended this, but the implication remains within the phrasing
within the use of the being verb). I would not suggest that you should
use E-Prime, I merely suggest that E-Prime serves as a useful
linguistic exercise for "semantic hygiene".
E: What's semantically "dirty" about the English language that requires
EP: Well, I believe that using verbs which imply a state of being
creates an artificial subconscious equality between things and the
description of things, that this description only has useful meaning
when qualified by
time and/or place. "Isness" creates a finality of definition which
implies an Aristotelean understanding of a binary world, where facts
"are" black or white, yes or no, true or false. As far as modern
science can tell us, the world
appears to operates on a system which we can only begin to approach
with quantum physics.
Quantum physics teaches us that observed phenomena can exist in (at
least) three ways: existence, non-existence, and maybe-existence.
looked in the box, the cat in Schroedinger's famous theoretical
experiment lived in "maybe existence." Dropping being verbs from
English allows the
writer to break out of Aristotelean dualist universe and begin to
describe observations of a chaotic universe where a lot of "facts" live
E: So what does E-Prime and all the philosophical stuff that have to do
with the "real world"?
EP: Whenever I hear people use the phrase "real world", I wonder if
they also invoke "common sense" as a substitute for a considered
response to any number of difficult questions. Common sense confirms
the earth's flatness. For people like myself who work and play on the
can boost communication skills used in areas such as communication
(especially where cut off from non-verbal hints and clues), technical
troubleshooting, and documentation. I simply can't afford to assume a
flat earth, nor assume classical Newtonian physics for all my attempts
at understanding and manipulating the world around me. I also find I
get into fewer heated conversation (especially on the phone) when I
explain to someone, in strict E-Prime, that they appear mistaken in
their analysis of a situation ("You want what when?!"), or when I must
pass on bad news (e.g. "Dude, you don't have an ISP anymore"). Try
re-writing your next few emails in E-Prime, and take note of the change
in tone in the text when you proofread it.
In a related excersize, the next time you hear two drunks start yelling
at each other in a bar, take note how often they use "being" verbs,
especially in reference to each other. How often do they use an "is" as
glue for a nasty label on each other? The Cold War may have had some
start in this phenomenon. Physicists have argued for decades about the
nature of a photon. Under certain conditions in laboratory studies, a
photon acts like a wave. Under other equally stringent conditions in
laboratory studies, a photon acts like a particle. Do you read anything
contradictory about these two sentences? If you wrote research papers
using being verbs you might find yourself at odds with other physicists
who observe different experimental data to construct a working model of
the universe. Re-write that same essay in E-prime and you may find your
work gets accepted more readily by the scientific community. This may
even help to create honest, accurate communication in the Open Source
E: Is this some kind of linguistic or semantic cult?!
E.P. No. If I use my linguistic excersizes as a form of cult
proselytizing, then why haven't I asked for money by now? ;-)
On some level though, E-Prime may relate to how we perceive the divine
or sacred. Did the ancient Jews not pronounce the name of their G-d
because His name appears semantically isomorphic to the Hebrew future
perfect being verb? I understand there exists in Israeli or ancient
Hebrew no present tense form of a being verb ("I am", "she/he is",
etc.), but there exists a past ("I was") and a future perfect form
(loosely in English "will have been"). In this sense, Hebrew appears to
approach the semantic mindset of E-prime. This future perfect form may
philosophically have resembled their ideas of G-d enough to make the
word sacred, and hence they pronounced "Yahweh" (linguistically close
to the English "will have been") as "Adonai" ("Lord"). To remind
themselves of this, their scripture usually has the vowel pronunciation
markings for "Adonai" over the letters for "Yahweh" wherever the word
occurs, which later resulted in a number of Christian scholars
mispronouncing the resulting superimposed word as "Jehovah".
E.: So why would I be caught dead speaking or writing strictly in
E.P.: Think of it has as mental calisthetics. I have found it
positively a panacea for writer's block. I would also suggest that the
assuptions of any language can colour and even limit its power and
range of expression.
Coders take note: How
not to write Fortran in any language.
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