Troubleshooting and Documenting Code in E-Prime
by William Porquet, M.A.
copyright MMIV

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"? Many writers may find communication tricky without the verb "to be". Why would anyone do this? Communication in E-Prime has the potential to seem more 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 decision making.

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 communicator then?

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 (and especially 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 hygiene?

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. Before anyone 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 in the "maybe existence".

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 Internet, E-Prime can boost communication skills used in areas such as communication (especially where cut off from non-verbal hints and clues), technical support, 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 communities also.

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-prime?

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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