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E-Prime is a variant of English where you can’t use “is”, “am”, “are”, “was”, or “be”. The name E-Prime means “a language derived from English”.

The point isn’t to [filter out] certain words, the point is to ban absolute statements about other predicates. “E-Prime is good”, “E-Prime is boring”, “E-Prime is Orwellian newspeak that erodes the free thought”, “the sky is blue”. Contractions and synonyms for “is” are also banned, and forms like “I’m” or “isn’t” are also gone, or “would” and “will”, even “has” can be bad; the point again isn’t to filter out specific words, it’s to learn to think in a way that isn’t absolute about the properties of things.

Instead, you have two options:

  1. Reconsider the statement entirely, maybe scrap it, maybe write something else, or, as a quick fix:
  2. Write “seems like to me”. “The sky seems blue to me.” A much worse option but it’s an “out” when you have a headache and you don’t wanna overthink what you’re writing or saying.

Even if you’re mostly relying on that second “quick fix” hack instead of thinking more deeply on what you’re about to say, it still does make a difference.

As anyone who has read my stuff knows, I usually don’t use E-Prime. I love making categorical sweeping statements for clarity. “Climate change is a disaster”, I might write, because that’s what it over all is even when someone somewhere might be slightly helped by it.

But I did use it for a few years, many years back now. Before I even started this website in 2010. And I’m glad I did. It was a really good practice that helped change the way I think. I still think about it every day. I’m glad I went through such a long stretch of writing in E-Prime.

Contrary to the A=A objectivists who were calling it Orwellian newspeak, I’d say E-Prime liberated my thoughts and made them more limber. Made me consider more perspectives and possibilities and connections. I still have it in my toolbox and try to reach for it when pondering a difficult problem, at least for part of the way. And then when I’m ready to communicate where I’m at, I can put it aside and just say clearly what I think more concisely and less hedgingly.

The copula has (at least) seven different functions: identity, class membership, class inclusion, predication, ownership, auxiliary, existence, and location.

Bourland, who came up with E-prime, wanted specifically to target identity and predication; he was fine with the other five uses, but he banned all seven “for simplicity”.

My own take is that the identity relation (“2+2 = 4”, “E-Prime is a variant of English where you can’t use the copula”) has plenty of mostly harmless uses while all the other six can mess you up royally; I agree with him that predication has the most potential for harm (“the sky is blue”, “talk is cheap”).

This also a problem that Lojban can’t solve.

It was when I learned Lojban in the mid 00s when I gave up E-Prime; Lojban doesn’t even have an “is”; it’s based on predicate grammar directly. Instead of “the sky was blue all day”, you’d say “the sky blued all day”, which has all the same problems. I realized that the problem E-Prime was trying to solve was just inherently a function of malglico, of English’ deifically ontological grammar. At first I was like “OK that’s cool, Lojban fixes it, it doesn’t even have is”. Then after thinking about it for three seconds I realized that the problem was so much worse in Lojban where predication is just inherently backed into every bridi. The problems never were the letters I S, it was speaking authoritatively like Adam about the predicate relationships of the world.

Toki Pona has the opposite problem where you can’t easily think about negative emotions. I love negative emotions! I feel so suffocatingly invalidated any time I try to express myself in Toki Pona and actually address my issues.

On some level, E-Prime seems hopelessly shallow and naive, and inherently malglico (in the sense of it comes across as just unaware of how some other languages syntatic structures work). And yet it does work. It does do what it sets out to do: making you better at ifs and buts and maybes. It makes your thinking hat a little greener.

A caveat

Thinking in English and then translating those thoughts to E-Prime undermines the entire thing. I’ve seen things like “The Bible translated to E-Prime”. That’s wack. Don’t do that. You learn it in the wrong way if you do that. You learn to still think in absolutes but express it hedgingly. That’s the opposite of what we want, which is to think with nuances and then express that clearly.