An Absence of Being

Several months ago I set out to write a post on the human tendency to place people into tidy groups. That post finally saw the light of screen as a paean to my younger, more overtly gothic, self. Since then I have several times considered writing the post I set out to write. However, it never really moved beyond variations on the truth that there are three types of people: those who are happy to fit people into tidy groups and those who are not. So I have decided to write about a possible method of counteracting the tendency to treat people and objects as their labels: the proscription of particular verbs.

Alfred Korzybski postulated that many humans do not think clearly because they associate labels with the object the represent, so come to react to the symbol not the object. An example of this might be seeing a picture of a footballer wearing a particular watch and coming to associate the watch first with the footballer then with success itself. To help people de-program their brains D. David Bourland, Jr., one of Korzybski’s students, proposed English Prime, English written without the verb to be.

“Is” Is Never To Be Used
(©Iron Man Records – CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Without the convenient shorthand of saying a thing is something, the writer must say that it appears as something or that they believe it is something. For example, “The cats are misbehaving” becomes “I believe the cats behaviour is inappropriate”. This can benefit both the writer, who must see the imperfect knowledge in their statement, and the reader, who can see the difference between evidence and judgement.

Of course there are disadvantages to this method, not least of which is that forms of to be are deeply embedded enough in English that easy alternatives do not exist. The added clarity given by not conflating identity with opinion can be drowned by the need for complex and graceless language. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs probably depends on both the work and the audience: even with the benefit of both being an example of the point and my intellectual pride of achieving it, I found an E-Prime draft of this post to be more conceit than utility.

Although I do not write final drafts in E-Prime – save as an occasional mental exercise – the concept of revealing opinion has influenced my style. Instead of removing to be completely I question my use of a wider group of verbs: if I believe there is a more functional way of acting, do I need the moral overtone of should or does the mere mention of could express sufficient support? Is an action so necessary that it must be done?

Are there words you question or avoid completely? Do you believe that labelling people or objects is sometimes necessary?

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