Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Rare Notice of a Rare GS Idea

Every once in a while, somebody rediscovers or remembers some GS-related idea or practice and writes about it in the world press. Today's example comes from Oliver Burkeman, Life and Style columnist for the British newspaper, the Guardian, who writes a fair and generous article on the topic of e-Prime.

Burkeman appears to know his GS. He says:

in this anniversary year [of Bourland's original article on e-Prime], his eccentric vision deserves celebrating. Because in theory at least, E-Prime aimed at nothing less than using language to make our insane lives a little more sane.

While some of his explicit examples of e-Prime come out a little stilted ("To live or not to live, I ask this question" and "The Lord functions as my shepherd"), Burkeman's articulate posting shows he has a fairly competent handle on e-Prime. For example, he notes:
"I am a failure" feels permanent, all-encompassing, hopeless. Restating it in E-Prime – "I feel like a failure" or "I have failed at this task" – makes it limited, temporary, addressable.
To think about and function in the world, Korzybski said, we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don't reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst. And the verb "to be", he argued, contains the most traps of all.
Burkeman also notes that neuroscience has begun to catch up with Korzybski's and Bourland's understanding of the connection between the words we use and the thoughts we think:
as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and "finalistic, absolutistic" thoughts trigger stressful emotions.
Despite having used e-Prime to produce a clear and easy-to-read article extolling the value of e-Prime, Burkeman seems to dismiss his own point, when he says "in fairness Bourland never meant it as a serious replace­ment for English", as if someone promoting e-Prime needs an excuse for such wacky thinking.

In my view, any tool that exposes the biases and errors in understanding hidden in our day-to-day speech can only help improve communication. Most people reject e-Prime either because it makes writing difficult (it does, but only because you have to stop and think what you might really mean to say) or because it results in stilted, awkward phrasing (it can, but usually only while the writer unlearns the thought processes that rely on the far easier to-be structure.)

For example, Burkeman offers "The Lord functions as my shepherd" as an example of e-Prime. In my view, this only substitutes non-to-be words without actually rethinking the meaning of the sentence. I would suggest "The Lord guides me as a shepherd guides his sheep," which clears away the labelling of the original while exposing the actor and identifying the action.

That, to me, represents the value of a tool like e-Prime. In the years since Bourland's article, others have come to recognize that just rejecting "to be" doesn't quite cover the various pitfalls of unthinking speech. Allen Walker Read suggested using e-Ma, "English minus absolutisms", implemented by avoiding false-to-fact words like "every", "all", "always" and "never."

I prefer my own blend of these ideas, which one might call "e-MaP", English minus "to be", minus absolutisms, and minus "prescriptives", meaning words like "should", "must" and "need". To say "I must go to work today" obscures the choice I make. To say "I need a new car" obscures the fact that I can certainly live without one, but would prefer something new and shiny in my driveway.

Give it a try. You have only your implicit prejudices to lose!

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