<< To e-prime or not to e-prime, therein lies the question

I know a number of people across the core academic subject areas who either advocate or oppose the use of e-prime in writing assignments. Granted, this represents a small population when considering the size of the K12 community as a whole. However, the central idea behind this largely unheard debate deserves more public attention. For those unfamiliar with e-prime, consider what happens when the writer removes all forms of the verb "to be" from their writing.

Advocates claim that these verb forms, especially those functioning as "identity" or "predication" forms, detract from meaningful context and artificially impose an unwarranted exactness. To say it another way, the "to be" verb forms create generic statements presented as fact. For e-prime advocates, writing requires detail, context, and a connection between time and location to convey meaning. They consider these as essential traits.

Opponents claim that these verb forms exist as a matter of course in English and thus removing them creates awkward and convoluted writing. Further more, removing the "to be" verb forms fails to eliminate many of the core issues that the e-prime advocates hope to overcome. Namely, the essential traits of writing which produce meaning depend more on overall structure and abstraction than sentence formation.

All of this sounds like academic debate among linguistic specialists over the nuances of a language that most students never need know, or care to know. However, the underpinnings of this argument impact more than writing. The idea that meaning derives from internal abstractions generated through context, structure, and connections between time and location reaches into the heart of instructional practices. You might ask, "How does an esoteric debate over the usage of 'to be' verb forms relate to instruction practice?" The answer rests in current educational discussions regarding rigorous instruction; ie, instruction that promotes effective learning. The general logic runs along this line

"... an effective teacher creates a cognitively rich environment where students develop the ability to fluidly express their understanding of concepts, skills and knowledge across domains in a variety of complexity levels..."

The e-prime debate holds that language and thought interactively influence each other. Both advocates and opponents of e-prime tend to agree that changing the way we write affects how we describe the world. Going one step further, changing the way we describe the world implies changing the way we think about the world as well. This represents the true potential of writing in the classroom. Writing provokes directed thinking both critically and creatively. Such thinking fundamentally alters the learning experience by invoking a broader palette of cognitive abilities. So where does lead us in terms of effective teaching, or e-prime for that matter?

Researchers have suggested over the years that incorporating writing into assignments strengthens the academic process. It places a student into a mindset of having to reduce their thoughts down to a tangible form in a finite space. This process of moving from active thoughts to static words produces a significant cognitive load in students. Consequently, facing an empty screen or blank page often intimidates the student writer. As educators, we must remember that writing as part of learning serves a number of discrete purposes.

First, writing produces a measurable artifact, an example of student thinking processes frozen in time and forever locked to the full context of the prompt. Rough drafts, incremental revisions, and final draft capture the ongoing development in thinking and expressiveness used along the life cycle of that particular assignment. Second, writing creates a cascade of cognitive processes trying to cope with everything from the initial prompt to the final product. Thoughts need refining and reduction. As they gel into written or spoken form, thoughts need to establish some logical ordering, some means of reinforcing the central theme, perspective, argument, or descriptive narrative. Third, writing connects the writer to their thoughts across time. This allows more opportunity for reflective practices. Without undergoing this cascade, thoughts never communicate meaning to the outside world. For this reason, writing sets the stage for dialog with others.

Most importantly though, the writing process provides an effective means to develop thinking skills among students. If you have any doubts consider mathematics as an extreme example. Mathematics represents the embodiment of abstract concepts into a small highly structured micro-language with strict rules. Mathematicians quite adeptly use the language to communicate among themselves all matter of complexities, develop new concepts, and refute the thinking of others. However, the real power behind the language of mathematics lies in the way it forces its users to change their way of thinking. By treating the language itself as an obstacle while still honoring the rules, those fluent in mathematics become flexible and creative thinkers.

The advocates of e-prime hold a similar view toward the English language. By dropping the unwarranted authority value that "to be" verb forms hold over the language, they hope to birth a more qualifying and creative use of the language. By treating the "to be" verb forms as an obstacle within the rules of language, e-prime forces the writer to explore more qualified expressions of the same sentiment. For example:

  • The answer is five

might become either of the following:

  • The problem reduces to five.
  • The solution set includes five.

E-prime proponents would claim the original sentence represents a stateless fact with no means to justify its implied context. Furthermore, they suggest these new sentences carry some meaningful relationship between "five" and the original problem. Mathematically speaking, answers which constitute a solution set or reduce to a single number possess different conceptual foundations. Consequently, the new sentences hold their meaning longer by invoking a direct connection to the entire solution process from start to finish. Opponents of e-prime point to the loss of conciseness and the often increasing awkwardness of replacement sentences. In this case, they prefer to leave the development of establishing the relationship between answer and prompt for the reader to extract out of a broader context.

Unfortunately, the math example above provides an overly simplistic illustration. Rarely thinking of writing assignments in this manner, we look to writing as a body of text just fulfilling requirements in topic, size, and perhaps organization. Instead, writing assignments need to adopt the concept underpinning the entire argument over e-prime. The idea that meaning derives from abstraction generated through context, structure, and connections between time and location. This affords incredible opportunities to promote a variety of thinking skills.

By creating assignments that enforce the documentation of thinking through writing, a student produces a corresponding trail of logic. The resulting text exemplifies what a student knows, fails to grasp, or the nuances of their understanding. For another simple example, consider using e-prime to transform:

  • The haggard old man is a raging tyrant of violence and oppression.

The transformation could lead to either of the following:

  • The haggard old man rages violently like an oppressive tyrant.
  • An oppressive tyrant, the haggard old man raged violently.

These new sentences might demonstrate understanding the intent of the original sentence, but failing to grasp the desired tense.

The e-prime debate has merit to educators. Not necessarily in the mechanics of the "to be" or not "to be" argument but in the idea that writers need to confront what they write in terms of how they think and approach communicating those thoughts. The benefits of imposing a writing restriction like e-prime come from shaking up the traditional writing exercises. Placing students into circumstances where their writing must conform to differing requirements more authentically reflects real-word situations. While "to e-prime" or not "to e-prime" was the question, the best answer remains "write for purpose as often as possible," accepting the context, circumstance or format required.

Ben S. Jones