I appreciate the value of self-imposed constraint as a tool of discovery and innovation and as a method of extracting order out of chaos. So, I decided to write this blog post in E-Prime, a language that the authors of the E-Prime Anthology characterize as “deity mode of speech”, allowing “even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things”.
Think of E-Prime as a way of speaking ex cathedra, a way of giving voice to a Higher Authority. But don’t get fixated on this rabbit hole. Ever since I learned to write in E-Prime, this Code has become a benign addiction, or at least I prefer to think that the addiction is benign.
Woops! You see, I just violated the Code, but I only did that to illustrate the first rule of E-Prime — do not use any form of the verb “to be” — and I just used the word “is”. I also just illustrated the first formal exception to the rule: the use of quotation marks.
The dialect of E-Prime that I learned in college also eliminates any form of the verb “to have” and other verbs viewed as weak, such as the verb “become”. My E-Prime Code also abhors the passive voice and adjectives. It invites writers to view the world as a theater in which subjects, verbs and objects (SVOs) cocreate the spectacle (perichoresis) of social reality.
E-Prime can feel impossibly restrictive at first, and it can produce writer’s block, but in the end, it produces better text by revealing actors, actions and relationships organized into stories that capture the essential truth of a moment. I think of E-Prime as a language of truth-seekers trained to think of the world as theater and writers as storytellers speaking worlds into existence.
I often turn to E-Prime when I’m writing something that I feel matters and requires utmost clarity. Thinking about E-Prime over the past few days sent me down a rabbit hole as I started to revisit General Semantics and the idea of “Efficacious Speech”. I thought about mythopoetic formulations of this idea (e.g., Word Made Flesh and Abracadabra) and the anthropology of “speech-acts” designed to strengthen individual and collective resolve (e.g., oaths, vows, curses, blessings, declarations, etc.)
As I explored the preconditions of efficacious speech, I came across a book called At the Limits of Efficacious Speech: The Performance and Audience of Self-Curses in Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Oaths. The author, a University of Chicago classics scholar Christopher A. Faraone, says on his website that he is finishing a book on ancient Greek amulets and beginning two others: one entitled The Play of Ritual Genres in Homeric Epic and another on the catalogues in the Hesiodic Theogony. From the first couple of paragraphs of Efficacious Speech, I wanted to exclaim: “Professor, Faraone!!! You had me at ‘Hesiodic Theogony’!!! Read for yourself:
“The focus of this volume is on how ancient cultures used efficacious speech-acts — especially in vows and oaths — to render language stable and dependable and, in the process, to construct or maintain social, religious and legal order… Ancient Greeks often concluded their oaths with a pair of curses and blessings that encouraged the parties to keep to their oaths. The famous Hippocratic Oath, for example, ends as follows: ‘If I fulfill this oath without violating it, may it be granted that I enjoy a happy life and profession, honored always among men; but if I violate it and perjure myself, may the opposite befall me.”
The rabbit hole goes deeper. For example, I came across the work of Naomi Janowitz, a professor at UC Davis focused on psychoanalytic approaches to religion. In a collection of essays called Semiotic Mediations, she studies efficacious speech through the prism of myth. I also managed to read most of this lengthy critique of E-Prime: “To Be” in Their Bonnets.
Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, excelled at summarizing the essential conclusions of a large body of literature. “To change the world, change the story,” he wrote. Terence McKenna expressed the same truth in “The world is made of language”, as did Wittgenstein with “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
E-Prime offers a way to push the limits of language, especially in support of projects that aim to break new ground or map an unfamiliar strategic landscape. But anyone with an affinity for the idea of efficacious speech must have wondered why it doesn’t always translate into the reality of efficacious speech. Indeed, New Year’s resolutions, to-do lists, treaties, laws, regulations and mission statements usually fail, at least in part because language as a psychotechnology loses its efficacy when you use it to lie.
By “lie”, I don’t just mean trivially counterfactual speech. I also mean a deeper inauthenticity noticeable, for example in the performance of an actor who doesn’t quite understand his character, or a politician or a CEO hooked on talking points, or a customer service rep reciting a pre-approved script. The script may have passed a thorough legal review, but the interaction it helps choreograph only destroys trust and weakens the relationship.
By contrast, consider the classic examples of speech-acts that move minds, markets and civilizations — perhaps “I have a dream…” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” or “Next year, in Jerusalem!” or “May God Bless America!” Whether or not they conform to the syntax of E-Prime, these statements work because they express truths that transcend technical accuracy.
In my consulting practice, I help clients discover the larger truths at the heart of the stories they tell themselves about themselves. I help them change their worlds by changing their stories. This work typically begins with a Message Platform, an essential communications tool in the arsenal of most large organizations, but often neglected by small businesses whose performance may suffer in part because they remain mired in the wrong story. By contrast, numerous entrepreneurial ventures and lumbering giants have catapulted to new plateaus simply by re-describing their product and corporate brands in ways that connect them to their most responsive audiences with messages that the market is predisposed to embrace.
We welcome inquiries from prospective clients who want to give their message the E-Prime boost. Contact