Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Should English Get Rid of "To Be?"

In his latest column, Oliver Burkeman takes a look at David Bourland's controversial idea to get rid of the verb "to be." Apparently, some forty-five years ago, Bourland proposed a language called "E-Prime," which would eliminate "to be" in all its incarnations. This would eliminate, Bourland claimed, the inexact way in which we use "to be." For example, when we say "he is stupid," we are implying objectivity, which our statement may not justify. Burkeman cites the potential benefits of making these distinctions:
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.
I'm guessing this won't catch on any time soon. However, it reminds me a lot of the French subjunctive, where you have to use a special "mood" just to show that you are speaking subjectively. I never did understand why the French insisted on using the subjunctive, but I guess after reading this article I can kind of get it!

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