Saturday, January 23, 2010

What It Is

Remember when President Clinton first got in trouble over Monica Lewinsky, and came out with the line, "It depends on what the meaning of is is"?

In case you're curious, the full context of that line, made as part of a statement to a grand jury, went like this:

It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.

Obfuscations and prevarications aside, have you ever thought about what the meaning of is is?  Why would anyone need to look it up as basic as word as that, you might ask, but need to or not, it has to be included in the dictionary.  And, it, meaning is, is not all that easy to define, and in fact poses complex challenges.  Going to one online source,, and checking on the main verb form be, yielded the following results:


[bee; unstressed bee, bi]  Show IPA verb and auxiliary verb, present singular 1st person am, 2nd are or (Archaicart,3rd is, present plural are; past singular 1st person was, 2ndwere or (Archaicwast or wert, 3rd was, past plural were;present subjunctive be; past subjunctive singular 1st personwere, 2nd were or (Archaicwert, 3rd were; past subjunctive plural were; past participle been; present participle be⋅ing.
–verb (used without object)
to exist or live: Shakespeare's “To be or not to be” is the ultimate question.
to take place; happen; occur: The wedding was last week.
to occupy a place or position: The book is on the table.
to continue or remain as before: Let things be.
to belong; attend; befall: May good fortune be with you.
(used as a copula to connect the subject with its predicate adjective, or predicate nominative, in order to describe, identify, or amplify the subject): Martha is tall. John is president. This is she.
(used as a copula to introduce or form interrogative or imperative sentences): Is that right? Be quiet! Don't be facetious.
–auxiliary verb
(used with the present participle of another verb to form the progressive tense): I am waiting.
(used with the present participle or infinitive of the principal verb to indicate future action): She is visiting there next week. He is to see me today.
(used with the past participle of another verb to form the passive voice): The date was fixed. It must be done.
(used in archaic or literary constructions with some intransitive verbs to form the perfect tense): He is come. Agamemnon to the wars is gone.

bef. 900; ME been, OE bēon (bēo- (akin to OFris, OHG bim, G bin, OSbium, biom (I) am, OE, OHG, OS būan, ON būa reside, L fuī (I) have been, Gk phy- grow, become, OIr boí (he) was, Skt bhávati (he) becomes, is, Lith búti to be, OCS byti, Pers būd was)) + -n inf. suffix. See amisare 1 waswere 

Usage note:

See me. 
Be that as it may, one of the main non-Aristotelian principles of general semantics we call non-identity, and Alfred Korzybski was fond of saying, whatever you say it is, it isn't!  Clearly, Bill Clinton has some familiarity with general semantics, and drew on Korzybski's recommendation that we be very careful about the way that we use the verb "to be" as it can mislead us much of the time, because no two "things" or phenomena or events in reality are ever exactly the same, outside of symbol systems such as mathematics and symbolic logic.

And while Korzybski did not go to the extreme of advocating for the abolition of the verb to be from our language, one of his followers, David Bourland, took that next step, calling English without to be English-Prime, or E-Prime.  Recently, one of England's leading newspapers, The Guardian, ran an article about E-Prime written by Oliver Burkeman.  Part of a regular series  called "This Column Will Save Your Life," Burkeman's piece on E-Prime is dated January 16, and subtitled, "To Be or Not To Be..."  Shakespeare's most famous line inevitably comes up in these discussions, and they added the following photo of an actor I recognize as a former Dr. Who, with the caption "Two little words that cause all sorts of trouble - and not just for Hamlet (Christopher Eccleston). Photograph: Tristram Kenton":

And there was also a blurb after the subtitle that read, "It's 45 years since David Bourland suggested doing away with the verb 'to be'. A silly suggestion, one might think, but look a little closer and it makes a weird kind of sense."  

Burkeman starts off by writing

Forty-five years ago, the author David Bourland published an essay proposing a radical overhaul of English based on eliminating all forms of the verb "to be". In a world where we all spoke E-Prime, as Bourland called this new language, you couldn't say "Sandra Bullock's latest film is shockingly mediocre"; you'd have to say it "seems mediocre to me". Shakespeare productions would need retooling ("To live or not to live, I ask this question"), as would the Bible ("The Lord functions as my shepherd"). The world, in short, would feel very different – though in E-Prime you couldn't actually say it "was" very different. Unsurprisingly, it proved even less popular than Esperanto, and in fairness Bourland never meant it as a serious replace­ment for English. But in this anniversary year, 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.

I've left the links that appeared in the published piece, because they hold some interest here at Blog Time Passing.  By the way, in regard to the Bible, if you go to the original, the verb to be does not appear in the present tense in Hebrew, the language does not have words for is, am, are, and be.  As for English, Bourland may not have seriously considered the possibility of E-Prime replacing our everyday language, but he did publish three collections of writings in E-Prime by various authors, which we at the Institute of General Semantics still sell.  I myself wrote an article in E-Prime a few years ago, not an easy task, I can tell you.  But neither an impossible one.  Anyway, back to Oliver:

Bourland studied under Alfred Korzybski, a Polish aristocrat émigré who founded the philosophy of General Semantics, made famous by his slogan, "The map is not the territory." 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.
Take the phrase, "My brother is lazy." It seems clear, but Korzybski and Bourland would say it deceives: it implies certainty and objectivity, when in reality it expresses an opinion. Even, "The sky is blue" papers over the details: I really mean, "The sky appears blue to me." "Our judgments can only be proba­bi­listic," wrote Allen Walker Read, a Korzybski follower. "Therefore we would do well to avoid finalistic, absolutistic terms. Can we ever find 'perfection' or 'certainty' or 'truth'? No! Then let us stop using such words in our formulations." E-Prime provided an easy way to do this: simply stop using "to be".

Allen Walker Read actually worked on dictionary definitions of words like "is" and "be"--in fact, he wrote the Introduction to the dictionary I used all through graduate school.  And those two paragraphs, by the way, make for an excellent introduction into what general semantics is all about.  Well done, Mr. Burkeman.  And, that's not all:

All this might seem maniacally pointless pedantry. But as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and "finalistic, absolutistic" thoughts trigger stressful emotions. "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.
There's no question that many have found therapeutic value in general semantics.  But perhaps more to the point, E-Prime can be very useful for critical thinking, brainstorming, and problem-solving, as Burkeman explains:

"I have found repeatedly," wrote the novelist Robert Anton Wilson, an E-Prime advocate, "that when baffled by a problem in science, in philosophy, or in daily life, I gain immediate insight by writing down what I know about the enigma in strict E-Prime." Political debates might benefit, too, since E-Prime renders unyielding dogmatism – "All immigrants are scroungers!", "Taxation is theft!" etcetera – essentially impossible. As George Santayana put it, "The little word 'is' has its tragedies."
I love that Santayana quote, don't you?  And fundamentally, the problem is that our language leads us to think in terms of identity relationships, of things that are the same as each other, rather than different unique events in spacetime.  Anyway, let's return once more to Oliver for his concluding paragraph:

E-Prime never really caught on; General Semantics fell out of fashion. (It can't have helped that Korzybski's fans included that high-priest of poppycock, L Ron Hubbard.) Even so, trying to express one's thoughts without using "to be" can have a curiously salutary, bracing effect. In this column, with the obvious exception of the quoted examples, I have attempted to do this.

Bravo, Mr. Burkeman, bravo!   This article is an excellent illustration of how you can eliminate the verb to be seamlessly, without resort to any awkward constructions or convolutions, or obvious manipulations.  And when it comes to writing, the value of E-Prime is quite clear.  Simply put, minimizing the use of to be as much as possible makes for better writing.  To be indicates static relationships, rather than dramatic actions and events.

To be, simply put, is to bore.

It is raining is boring, as compared to, The rain poured down from the sky, which also leads me to find some kind of metaphor, e.g., like flop sweat from an overweight comedian performing for a stone-faced audience.  Okay, maybe not exactly deathless prose, but I think you can see my point.

E-Prime or not E-Prime, that is the question.  Well, for critical thinking and good writing, it's an excellent tool to have at your disposal.

And here's the URL for Oliver Burkeman's article, in case you want to see it in its original context:

And as for what the meaning of is is, it is what it is...


Bruce I. Kodish said...

Nice job, Lance. You brought in some interesting connections with Clinton's famous comments, etc.

Allen Walker Read didn't go along with Dave Bourland's suggestion to eliminate 'to be' altogether, since Allen felt that eliminating the passive voice, the auxiliary 'is' and the 'is' of existence, would unduly impoverish the language. Allen proposed a re-wording alternative that he called EMA, i.e., English Minus Absolutisms.

Anyhow the E-Prime Books that the Institute of General Semantics sells provide plenty of food for 'thought' and practice in E-Prime and alternatives like EMA for those who inquire further.

None of these language practices constiute panaceas, of course, but they can make a surprising difference to people who use them.

Anonymous said...

This is quite helpful, now I have a name for the meme that I thought was an orphan, it is the truth. jerry d.

Mike Plugh said...

Great post and a great article. I've slowly tried to work with simple E-prime exercises with my Japanese students studying English exposition.

My first foray into this kind of thinking about language is a simple paragraph exercise called "Sushi without To Be". The students moan and groan about how difficult it is at first and try to find clever ways to sneak that pesky verb into their work in some form, but when I hold fast to the rules they really expand their thinking, challenge their vocab, and describe sushi in a much more complex and informative way.

It's one of my holdover exercises each semester and has led to other GS work with their writing.