What’s English Prime and Why Does it Matter?

Optimus Prime by El Dave

No, E Prime doesn’t have anything to do with Transformers.

English Prime, or E Prime, is a constructed variant of standard English developed in the 60s in order to provide a form of English that reduced or eliminated any difficulty of the listener or reader to distinguish between fact and opinion and make the biases of the writer or speaker more evident.

Like most languages created for the purpose of promoting sweeping social and cultural good (cough, Esperanto, cough) it never really took off beyond a small group of hardcore devotees.

While it’s merits as a clearer form of English are debatable, the premise behind it and the form of it can actually teach us a lot about the way we perceive things in the world and help us be more mindful in our thinking.

How Does E Prime Work?

In it’s essence, E Prime works by eliminating all forms of the verb ‘to be’ in English. The idea behind this is that by removing the copula it removes a speakers ability to make value statements about a thing or event as if they were objective facts.

In general, people do tend to abuse the use of ‘to be’ in English. This does cause some faulty reasoning from time to time, so the premise at least has some merit in that regard.

Take for example the assertion, “That movie was good”. We can’t use ‘was’ in E Prime since it’s a form of ‘to be’, so you have to reword that sentence as “I enjoyed that movie,” “That movie made me laugh”, etc. This changes the structure in such a way that you are no longer describing the movie itself but instead are describing your own experience of the movie. It makes clear that you are making a subjective value statement rather than an objective one.

Now I don’t think everyone should actually start speaking like this – there are too many linguistic issues with it in my opinion to make it viable large scale – but I do think we can learn a lot about how we approach things by the way it works.

E Prime and Mindfulness

Even if it isn’t valuable as an actual means of communication E Prime is valuable as a tool for reflection on mindfulness and the way we think about things.

First of all it helps us notice that many times things expressed as absolute facts are really opinions. When you remove the absoluteness of the copula it reveals the fact that everything we express is a reflection of our own experience.

When someone says, “That’s a bad idea,” they may really mean “I dislike that idea,” “That idea won’t work,” or another similar sentiment. Rather than just dismiss it as ‘bad’ they have to elaborate at least a little bit to explain what their problem is. When people make a hard assertion like “[blank] is [blank]” that assertion should always be understood as being colored in some way by their subjective experience.

If you say something like “Earth is the center of the universe,” E Prime makes it clear that what you really mean is “Earth appears to be the center of the universe.” This exposes more clearly that you’re just relating the experience of a fallible observer and not making an absolute, infallible statement.

That’s not to say you can’t make statements like that in E Prime. “The Sun orbits the Earth,” is a good example of an authoritative sounding E Prime compliant sentence that doesn’t really reveal that it is colored by the perceptions of an observer.

That’s fine. The point is really just to recognize that whenever people express a value statement or report actions they are always heavily colored by their own subjectivity.

The reason this is important for increasing our mindfulness is that it reminds us constantly that when you’re talking to people the things they discuss are always filtered through the subjective lens of their world view. Being aware of this in the moment helps us make better judgments based on the reports of others and helps us better understand the thoughts and motivations of those around us.

Similarly it reminds us of our own subjectivity and fallibility in the statements we make. It discourages us from making hard, absolutist statements about things as we recognize that we can only report our own experience. This understanding makes it much easier for us to be open to changing our views on things which is an important part of growing as a person.

If you only think of your statements and opinions in terms of absolutes, it makes them harder to change. Someone who says, “He’s wrong,” is less likely to reconsider than the person who says, “I don’t agree with that.” The second person, in some small way at least, recognizes that their own thinking may be incorrect.

Now a quick note on subjectivity – it’s important to understand that people’s statements are influenced by their own subjective experience, but there are still things that are objectively true. I don’t buy the whole “That’s your Truth but not my Truth,” idea. However, if you think I’m wrong and that there’s no such thing as objective truth, I encourage you to decide gravity is no longer part of your subjective truth and then to step out of a second story window.

E Prime, while not really useful as a communication tool in my opinion, can help us be more mindful about our own thinking and the thinking of others by reminding us that everyone’s statements pass through the filter of their own experience before being expressed into the world. Are there any other lessons you’ve learned from the way E Prime works? Have you actually tried using E Prime on a day to day basis? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: ElDave

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com