The Rain Fell in Torrents – Except at Occasional Intervals

by Dan H

Dan talks about stormy nights, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and popular writing advice
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In a recent (at time of writing) Playpen discussion, somebody made a throwaway reference to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famously awful opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

This was just the impetus I needed to start this article, the idea for which I have been kicking around since last time I looked at the NaNoWriMo forums. Specifically, it was the impetus I needed to write an article on the subject of received wisdom about “good writing”. I'm going to start off with the famous opening of Paul Clifford, because I think it's pleasingly illustrative.

As I observed in the Playpen, if you ask twenty people why “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad opening line, ten of them will look at you blankly, while the other ten will give you ten different answers. More specifically, the other ten will give you ten different answers which reflect the weird bits of superstitious writing advice that those people have internalized.

I have heard a remarkable number of explanations of the “problem” with “it was a dark and stormy night” and nearly all of them have been based either on some nonsensical non-rule, or bald assertion.

The First Complaint: Cliché

The general complaint made against IWaDaSN is that it's a cliché. There are two problems with this criticism. The first and most obvious is that the line has been taboo for so long that nobody uses it except as a joke or sly reference (it appears, for example, in the Hugo-nominated short story Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue). It might arguably have been a cliché at some point, but at this stage its cliché status is more a matter of received wisdom than actual usage.

It is probably true that “it was a dark and stormy night” was at one point a go-to opening line for a particular type of fiction – Wikipedia cites several examples, some of which predate Bulwer-Lytton, and not all of which are parodies. (Although at least one example - The Monkey's Paw - is incorrect, it seems to be referring to this retelling for eight-year-olds by somebody called Andrew Pegram rather than the original which opens “Without, the night was cold and wet”). It is not, however, immediately clear that any of the stories which did open with this line are in any way the worse for it. Paul Clifford was by all accounts popular in its day, and while it certainly hasn't aged as well as other novels of the period, its peculiarities extend well beyond the first seven words. Seriously, check out the opening chapter – stormy nights are not the problem here.

The second problem is that “cliché” is not an inherently bad thing. People are notoriously bad at analysing their own use of language, and we all use shorthands and stock phrases far more than we think we do. I myself open this article with “ask X people about Y and you will get X different answers” and use the phrases “received wisdom” and “by all accounts”, all of which are clichéd set phrases I use to help me communicate my ideas smoothly and simply. I'm also not sure where “cliché” is supposed to end and “allusion” begin. Is “more honoured in the breach than in the observance” a cliché or a Shakespeare quote?

The problem with “it was a dark and stormy night” isn't that it's overused (at least not sincerely, although one might argue that the knowing or parodic use of the line has – ironically - become so overused as to be cliché in a way the original never was). The problem is that the line is widely recognised as an example of bad writing. It's sort of like naming your kid Adolph, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the name, but the associations are so profoundly negative that people don't like to use it.

Indeed, at the risk of invoking a kind of meta-Godwin's-law, “it was a dark and stormy night” is a bit like Hitler in the sense that people will often cite similarity with the line as evidence of bad writing in much the same way that they cite similarity with Hitler as evidence of moral unacceptability. Just as people will argue, with entirely straight faces, that the fact that Hitler liked Wagner must mean that there is something wrong with Wagner, so they will argue that the fact that a particular word, construction, or feature appears in the sentence “it was a dark and stormy night” is evidence that said word, construction, or feature is bad writing.

For example:

The Second Complaint: “It”

When I say I have heard people complain about “it was a dark and stormy night” right down to the level of the individual words that make it up, I mean it quite literally. You really don't need to look further than the first word of the sentence to find a construction which people genuinely complain about as if it's a serious grammatical problem. That's right: there really are people in the world who object to the word “it”. And these people are not the Knights Who Say Ni.

Okay, that's a little bit unfair. To be more specific, there are people who object to the word “it” being used sentence-initially in such a way that it does not refer to anything that has been mentioned previously. According to these people “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad line because it should be cast as “The night was dark and stormy”.

By the same token, Pride and Prejudice should open with: “The truth that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife is universally acknowledged.” And 1984 should open with: “The clocks struck thirteen on a bright, cold morning in April.”

This complaint is so patently silly that I will not spend any more time talking about it.

The Third Complaint: “Was”

As if the complaints about “it” weren't bad enough (although they are mercifully rare), poor old “was” is even worse off.

We'll leave aside for the moment the question of the “passive voice” (of which “it was a dark and stormy night” is not an example, although a lot of people mistake it for one) and focus instead on the unreasoning hatred that a lot of people seem to direct at this perfectly harmless verb.

Complaints about “was” tend to be based on the idea that effective writing should involve “people doing things” or at the very least “active” language (which again, is often contrasted with “passive” language which gets confused with the “passive voice” which is something very different). By this logic “it was a dark and stormy night” is bad writing because it only tells you that the storm exists but does not use sufficiently evocative language to describe it.

According to the “don't say was” rule the sentence should apparently be recast so as to show the storm (or possibly the darkness) doing something. So for example “A storm raged on the dark night” would apparently be better because it describes action rather than mere existence. Presumably, by the same logic, A Tale of Two Cities should open with something like “the times bested and worsted”.

The “was proscription” overlaps with the more ludicrous interpretations of the old maxim “show, don't tell.” Don't tell me that the night is dark and stormy, show me the night being dark and stormy. Don't tell me that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, show me it being the best of times and the worst of times. Go too far down this road and you find yourself unable to describe anything at all. It is, after all, only possible to “show” your audience something by “telling” them something else.

The “was proscription” highlights the dangers of investing too strongly in the kind of arbitrary writing advice you get on the internet. If you choose to begin your story at night, and wish to draw attention to the fact that the night is dark, and that there is a storm blowing when the story begins, “it was a dark and stormy night” is a clear, concise, and economical way to do so. (This, indeed, is the joke in Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue - having spent five paragraphs describing the depth of the darkness and the intensity of the storm, the author summarises as “in short, it was a dark and stormy night”).

The Fourth Complaint: Purple Prose

The actual first sentence of Paul Clifford is:


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.


I've got several things to say about this, the first and most important of which is that this novel was published in 1840 and not being a great student of English literature I am really not certain how much of Bulwer-Lytton's style is simply an artefact of his time. For comparison, Bleak House begins:


A Chancery judge once had the kindness to inform me, as one of a company of some hundred and fifty men and women not labouring under any suspicions of lunacy, that the Court of Chancery, though the shining subject of much popular prejudice (at which point I thought the judge's eye had a cast in my direction), was almost immaculate.


There are differences, certainly, but the similarities are striking. Both sentences (and it is important to recognise that both of these are single sentences) are long and discursive, both contain digressions and parenthetical comments. Bulwer-Lytton uses rather more adjectives, but he also describes what is actually going on rather more directly than Mr Dickens. Bulwer-Lytton makes some questionable stylistic decisions (“for it is in London that our scene lies” - because what, there aren't streets anywhere else?) but even in all of its glory the opening sentence of Paul Clifford is actually fairly reasonable. Yes, there are a lot of adjectives, but there are no similes whatsoever and there is only one, perfectly reasonable, metaphor (“the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”).

Indeed one can't help but feel sorry for Bulwer-Lytton. When the first seven words are taken out of context, we can criticise him for using weak “passive” constructions like “it was” but when you add in the rest of the sentence, we pillory him for being “purple”.

Perhaps I'm protesting too much, or trying too hard to be fair to a dead Earl, but stepping back and looking at the first line of Paul Clifford as objectively as one can look at a text that is almost definitionally badly written I actually think it's not that bad. Certainly the reader is left with a very clear image of the scene which Bulwer-Lytton is describing, and while it is unusual for the description to be delivered in a single fifty-eight word sentence, he achieves a better effect than many modern authors achieve in a hundred-word paragraph. Compare, for example, the opening of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana:



Both moons were high, dimming the light of all but the brightest stars. The campfires burned on either side of the river, stretching away into the night. Quietly flowing, the Deisa caught the moonlight and the orange of the nearer fires and cast them back in wavery, sinuous ripples.



Now Kay's writing is certainly more in-keeping with modern sensibilities (his three sentences are still shorter than Bulwer-Lytton's one) but otherwise there isn't a lot in it. Kay is describing a more peaceful scene, and so he uses words like “wavery” and “sinuous” instead of “scanty” and “struggling” but there isn't a clear difference of type between Bulwer-Lytton writing in 1840 and Kay writing a hundred and fifty years later.

Of course from a certain point of view, the full content of the opening sentence is irrelevant anyway, because it is only the first seven words that anybody quotes, and there really is nothing remotely “purple” about the sentence “it was a dark and stormy night” - certainly it can't be at the same time purple and bland.

The Fifth Complaint: Redundancy

A very slightly valid complaint about “it was a dark and stormy night” is that it contains redundant information. Nights are always dark, stormy nights especially so, and so mentioning all three things is a waste of wordcount. I am almost willing to concede this point, insofar as it is at least self-consistent. But I cannot quite get away from the fact that we are talking about seven words.

You could just about recast “it was a dark and stormy night” in such a way as to remove the redundant words but all that would give you is “it was a stormy night” which isn't strictly better, it's just shorter. “It was a dark and stormy night” actually has a certain amount to recommend it – it's four iambic feet, it conjures up exactly the image it is supposed to conjure up, and it does it extremely clearly.

To put it another way, “omit needless words” is a perfectly reasonable rule, but identifying those words that are “needless” is a nontrivial exercise. Again, to take a random example, the opening lines of Moby Dick are:


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.


Now we could trim that down a bit by eliminating “never mind how long precisely” (the nonspecificity is implicit in the choice of the vague phrase “some years ago”), “in my purse” (it doesn't matter where the money he does not have would be kept if he had it), “particular” (vacillating weasel words), and “sail about a little and” (if you are seeing the watery part of the world, you are clearly sailing). None of these changes particularly improve Moby Dick but they do remove those elements of the prose which are not directly concerned with imparting new information to the reader.

In Conclusion: On Writing

It occurs to me that I have now written more than two and a half thousand words analysing a seven-word sentence fragment, and one could be forgiven for wondering why I bothered. I am certainly not – despite appearances – attempting to argue that there is no such thing as good writing, or even that there aren't useful rules which new and aspiring writers could benefit from learning. And I'm certainly not overly concerned about Edward Bulwer-Lytton, although I do think it's a little sad that he went down in history as the worst writer ever.

What I'm mostly interested in – or mostly concerned about if you prefer – are the strange, quasi-superstitious writing rules which people cling to (and worse, which they seek to enforce on other people), and which I think “dark and stormy night” nicely illustrates. Here I think genuine harm is done both to developing writers, and to the wider community of readers, by these unfounded rules that pretend good writing can be located at the level of sentences and individual words.

There is such a thing as bad writing, but bad writing cannot be fixed by removing the words “it” or “was”, or by worrying about the occasional stock phrase or freaking out about adjectives, or by imagining that it is wrong to ever include words with overlapping or complimentary meanings, or to emphasise or make explicit things that might be implied elsewhere.

Paul Clifford might well be a terrible novel, or more likely it might be a perfectly good novel which did not survive a century and a half of changing fashions and conventions. Either way, whatever problems the book may have, they are nothing to do with its first seven words.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:55 on 2012-06-26
For comparison, Bleak House begins:


A Chancery judge once had the kindness to inform me, as one of a company of some hundred and fifty men and women not labouring under any suspicions of lunacy, that the Court of Chancery, though the shining subject of much popular prejudice (at which point I thought the judge's eye had a cast in my direction), was almost immaculate.

Bleak House fanboy quibbleage: that's the first line of the preface Dickens tacked on once the novel was compiled into a book following the serialisation, so it's not really part of the novel proper (any more than any other author's note to a new edition of a book is considered an integral part of the story).

The actual first sentence of Bleak House is:

London.

Oooh no London isn't doing something! It's a bad sentence! Burn Dickens!
Sister Magpie at 15:56 on 2012-06-26
I'm embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that phrase was supposed to symbolize bad writing. I think I always just took it as a shorthand for a certain kind of genre story--which I suppose implies bad writing, but to me it was more about the kind of story it was obviously telling.

Of course, I also associate it more with Snoopy than Paul Clifford, because that's how that novel Snoopy was always trying to write started.
Dan H at 15:57 on 2012-06-26
Bleak House fanboy quibbleage: that's the first line of the preface Dickens tacked on once the novel was compiled into a book following the serialisation, so it's not really part of the novel proper (any more than any other author's note to a new edition of a book is considered an integral part of the story).


Whoops, that's what I get for reading Gutenberg sloppily. Although in my defence, what I was mostly interested in was sentence structure.
Arthur B at 15:59 on 2012-06-26
First paragraph of Bleak House would get you pilloried in the places which spout these writing rules.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.


Isn't it brilliant?
Dan H at 16:00 on 2012-06-26
I'm embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that phrase was supposed to symbolize bad writing. I think I always just took it as a shorthand for a certain kind of genre story--which I suppose implies bad writing, but to me it was more about the kind of story it was obviously telling.


I think it's one of those lines that means whatever the person using it intends it to mean. It can stand for a particular genre, a particular style, or a particular attitude. Here I'm mostly using it as a jumping off point.
James D at 16:58 on 2012-06-26
somebody made a throwaway reference

Hey, that's me!

Inspired by the playpen discussion (and a tad embarrassed that I invoked a reference without actually understanding it thoroughly), I poked around a little on my own and discovered two more plausible explanations for the status of the notorious line, partially but not entirely covered in the article here.

The first is that it's a cliche - not because of the specific words, but rather in choosing to open a mystery story during a dark and stormy night. As I mentioned in the playpen, I think that while its status as a "living" cliche may have been valid once, it was based around conventions that don't really exist any longer.

The second was that it was a textbook example of purple prose - not the opening sentence itself, but rather Paul Clifford as a whole, of which the opening line became emblematic. Now, I'm not an expert in the literature of that time, but I find Dickens at least to be very readable, while the bit I tried of Paul Clifford was like trying to swallow gravel. YMMV.

Overall though I'm inclined to agree with the gist of your article - that people think far too much of 'rules of writing' and often ascribe to them the status of immutable laws, despite it being rather easy to pick most of them apart and cite all sorts of "Great Literature" that flaunts them. As a wannabe writer myself, I've read tons of opinions on what constitutes good writing, and while it's useful to view them as suggestions, rules they ain't.
http://garethrees.org/ at 16:59 on 2012-06-26
I think the phrase was popularized by the comic strip "Peanuts". When Snoopy sat on the roof of his doghouse and started to type one of his novels, the first sentence would inevitably be, "It was a dark and stormy night." This is certainly where I first encountered it (along with the ultimate in four-word spoilers, "Rosebud was his sled").

The thing that is awkward about the opening sentence of Paul Clifford is that the digressions undermine the mood-setting. Whereas in Bleak House the digressions suggest the tangled dreary complexity of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Sister Magpie at 17:06 on 2012-06-26
Isn't it brilliant?


I think a teacher of mine in college used just that opening paragraph to show how cinematic Dickens was. He starts out in an aerial shot and gradually drops down to the people, ultimately landing on the place/people that start the story.
James D at 17:13 on 2012-06-26
Actually I take my criticism of Paul Clifford back; it's quite entertaining to read, as long as you pick and choose the good bits. This introduction, for example:
While the affectionate matron was thus running on, Lucy's eye glancing round the room discovered in an armchair the round and oily little person of Dr. Slopperton, with a countenance from which all the carnation hues, save in one circular excrescence on the nasal member, that was left, like the last rose of summer, blooming alone, were faded into an aspect of miserable pallor.

Yes, the pimple on his nose was just like the last rose of summer.
Arthur B at 17:18 on 2012-06-26
I think a teacher of mine in college used just that opening paragraph to show how cinematic Dickens was. He starts out in an aerial shot and gradually drops down to the people, ultimately landing on the place/people that start the story.

I love the opening chapter as a whole, really, because it gives this great sense of the slow ponderous meandering of the Chancery system of the time, very nonchalantly lets slip that a major player in J&J has blown their brains out, and then spontaneously declares at the end that the whole Court of Chancery ought to be burned to the ground.
My first thought was also of Snoopy sitting on the roof of his doghouse with his typewriter, with or without his aviator goggles on. That alone basically kills any chance I have of taking the sentence seriously in another setting.
Tamara at 20:19 on 2012-06-26
I always thought it was about genre as well, not the actual quality of writing of the specific seven words. I really can't see anything inherently offensive in "it was a dark and stormy night." To the contrary, it strikes me as a better line than "A storm raged that night" or whatever. Rules are all well (really, they are) but there is something a bit intangible about writing sometimes. The flow or rhythm or something like that, or a fairly intangible mood or sense-of-something that one wording will give a whiff of and slightly different one describing the exact same thing just won't.
...the “passive voice” (of which “it was a dark and stormy night” is not an example, although a lot of people mistake it for one)


I, embarassingly, was convinced for at least a few years that "passive voice" meant using "be verbs" (i.e. the various conjugations of "to be"), because in an English class we were marked down for using those, as some kind of exercise to avoid using passive voice. To be fair, it's entirely possible that the teacher did explain to us what passive voice actually is and I wasn't paying enough attention or forgot, but I just remember being told we shouldn't use "be verbs" and being utterly baffled about it. I only found out the truth after, I think, making some comment about it in some discussion somewhere, meeting with puzzlement, and then actually looking it up.

it only tells you that the storm exists but does not use sufficiently evocative language to describe it.


I thought the problem would be that it tells you the storm exists, but avoids telling you who's responsible! In other words, don't settle for the lazy old technique of just saying what the weather IS--make it clear that Thor's doing it.

A lot of writing could be improved thus, in my opinion.
Dan H at 21:21 on 2012-06-26
I, embarassingly, was convinced for at least a few years that "passive voice" meant using "be verbs" (i.e. the various conjugations of "to be"), because in an English class we were marked down for using those, as some kind of exercise to avoid using passive voice.


It's distressingly common. It's particularly absurd because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the passive voice ("we were marked down" is simply a better way to put it than "our teacher marked us down").

It's mildly depressing the number of completely wrong ideas about English that are propagated by English teachers (I have a very distinct memory of doing exercises in primary school where we had to find words apart from "said" to describe dialogue - and I also remember hearing one teacher comment to another that it was always hard to find examples in real books).

I thought the problem would be that it tells you the storm exists, but avoids telling you who's responsible!


Ooh, good point. It is *shamefully* vague about agency.
Andy G at 21:42 on 2012-06-26
Just as people will argue, with entirely straight faces, that the fact that Hitler liked Wagner must mean that there is something wrong with Wagner


Though they would coincidentally be correct anyway, because Wagner was in fact very anti-semitic.
Dan H at 21:45 on 2012-06-26
Though they would coincidentally be correct anyway, because Wagner was in fact very anti-semitic.


But the fact that Hitler liked Wagner does not constitute *evidence* that he was anti-semitic.
Shimmin at 21:46 on 2012-06-26
It's particularly absurd because there is absolutely nothing wrong with the passive voice ("we were marked down" is simply a better way to put it than "our teacher marked us down").

It's also just really weird. I mean, what can be "wrong" in absolute terms about a grammatical construction that the language allows? Of course it's possible to overdo it and achieve an effect that isn't what you wanted, but the same goes for anything. And the passive is amazingly useful when you want to be elusive about agency.

Just for funs, I believe there are languages where expressing agency in a passive is not simply optional, but frowned on (including Turkish) or actually grammatically incorrect (including Latvian).

Incidentally, if you're not allowed to use "be", how are you supposed to describe anything at all?
Andy G at 21:54 on 2012-06-26
the fact that Hitler liked Wagner does not constitute *evidence* that he was anti-semitic


Indeed! That's what I had meant by coincidentally, though I was perhaps trying to be too concise for my own good.
Cammalot at 21:56 on 2012-06-26
The "be" injunction is supposed to encourage students to avoid participles when they aren't appropriate or are overused -- "It was la la la" should be FINE, but you don't want to say "He was walking" (which suggests that the second half of the sentence is going to be about something that interrupted his walking or happened while he was doing it -- "He was walking down the street when a cat landed on his head") when you want to say "he walked" ("John walked three miles to school each morning and four miles back" instead of "John was walking three miles to school every morning...") Even using the participles isn't *really* so bad, it's overdoing that gets unwieldy, because beginning essay writers have a tendency to avoid simple past tense. It doesn't sound fancy enough, or something.
Cammalot at 21:57 on 2012-06-26
("It was la la la" in which "la la la" = some sort of adjective or modifier. At some point this evening I am going to make a statement without a post full of corrections following right after.)
Andy G at 21:58 on 2012-06-26
Also, I think MS Word is probably more to blame for the idea that the passive voice is bad than teachers. I don't remember my teachers telling me not to use the passive, but I certainly remember MS Word telling me not to!
http://gamer-2k4.livejournal.com/ at 22:16 on 2012-06-26
"we were marked down" is simply a better way to put it than "our teacher marked us down"

But it's not as good as, "We lost points."

Switching to active voice doesn't necessarily mean keeping the same verb.
Dan H at 23:05 on 2012-06-26
Firstly, there is no such thing as "active voice".

Secondly "we lost points" is only better if you subscribe to the nonsensical proscription against passives. "We lost points" is actually strictly worse. "Were marked down" is the correct phrase to use because that is exactly what happens to you. "Lost points" is - ironically - vague about agency. You do not "lose points" the points are taken away from you. It doesn't matter who takes the points away, only that they are taken.
Dan H at 23:10 on 2012-06-26
The "be" injunction is supposed to encourage students to avoid participles when they aren't appropriate or are overused -- "It was la la la" should be FINE, but you don't want to say "He was walking" ... when you want to say "he walked"


That might be the *intent* of the be injunction, but it's a funny way to go about it. Surely what you have there is a straightforward case of using the wrong verb form. In standard English (I understand that some dialects differ) you don't use the past continuous to describe habitual action, only to describe an ongoing state of affairs during which some other event happened.
Shimmin at 23:29 on 2012-06-26
Firstly, there is no such thing as "active voice".

I think this is the first thing in the entire discussion that's actually wrong. Sorry, Dan. English active voice is the construction X verb Y. It contrasts with the passive voice, which is Y is verbed by X.
Cammalot at 23:34 on 2012-06-26
That might be the *intent* of the be injunction, but it's a funny way to go about it. Surely what you have there is a straightforward case of using the wrong verb form. In standard English (I understand that some dialects differ) you don't use the past continuous to describe habitual action, only to describe an ongoing state of affairs during which some other event happened.

Yes, but students do it wrong, and teachers take shortcuts. :-) It's not the best blanket injunction, no (very few of the blanket ones are), but that's the only rationale against "be" I can think of that might lead to a confusion with the one against passive voice that Melanie Davidson cited.
Firstly, there is no such thing as "active voice".

This might be a cross-Atlantic thing, but passive and active voice are definitely cited and defined in opposition to each other in U.S. textbooks. This doesn't necessarily affect anybody else, though. I dunno.

I personally believe in bending and breaking these "rules" for effect. I'm having a disagreement right now with a tutor over not splitting infinitives (which I maintain were a misguided attempt to turn English into Latin), and unlike most copy editors I do not give a flying fig if someone uses "literally" to mean "really-truly." Most of these "injunctions" I believe are meant for training purposes -- when you get out of school and know your stuff you should be able and allowed to do what you want. (To put things in perspective -- in U.S. schools there is -- or was, when I was little -- also an injunction against the word "nice" -- due to overuse.)
Cammalot at 23:38 on 2012-06-26
Okay, that sounded like I'm in favor of a lot more lawlessness than I actually am.
Guy at 03:58 on 2012-06-27
Just to clarify what Shimmin said, the active voice looks like this:

Subject verb object (for transitive verbs)
Subject verb (for intransitive verbs)

Whereas the passive look like this:

Object was verbed

Or, optionally, like this:

Object was verbed by subject (the full passive)

In general I think the idea of a "rule" against the passive is silly, although there is an exception. Lots of first-year university students, possibly from reading various turgid academic articles assigned by their teachers, pick up the idea that long, confusing sentences written in the passive voice are what makes for proper, grown-up, academic writing. And so they write essays full of long, confusing sentences in the passive voice, and they're awful. Mind you, I think a lot of the damage is done by the nigh-religious fervour with they've been indoctrinated against using the word "I" in "proper" writing. "Marx thinks X, but I think Y" is so simple and clear compared with all the awful variations on "It is believed that Marx's view on class was that..." that you otherwise get.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:57 on 2012-06-27
Love this essay, Dan! It's odd - I notice a great deal of bad grammar, poor editing, etc, when I'm reading books for review, but those young authors certainly do avoid the passive voice. It is avoided by them, most strenuously and industriously. (And that's an example of a bad use of the passive;))

But the reason I'm chiming in at all is the famous opening sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night". Madeleine L'Engle used it as the opening sentence of one of my all-time favorite books, "A Wrinkle in Time". I maintain it was a fine opening sentence. And Snoopy's problem isn't the opening; it's that he can't discover a story that follows from it.

Good post, anyway.
Frank at 05:36 on 2012-06-27
London is stormy?
valse de la lune at 07:11 on 2012-06-27
The opening to Tigana is bloody dreadful, I must say. It's just... so not very good. Guy Gavriel Kay is a writer of whom nothing can be recommended beyond perhaps that he's not, say, RE Howard. He writes like he thinks he is a master of prose but he has no ear for shit. Tigana as a whole--well...

What I'm mostly interested in – or mostly concerned about if you prefer – are the strange, quasi-superstitious writing rules which people cling to (and worse, which they seek to enforce on other people), and which I think “dark and stormy night” nicely illustrates.


But without those rules how will you distill things down to formulae? It's what people are after--magic formulae that'll make them Good Writers overnight, or which as long as adhered to will gift them with unassailable Good Writerdom. To reinforce and spread these "rules" is to their advantage: so their definition of good writing becomes the commonly accepted thing.
Dan H at 09:57 on 2012-06-27
I think this is the first thing in the entire discussion that's actually wrong. Sorry, Dan. English active voice is the construction X verb Y. It contrasts with the passive voice, which is Y is verbed by X.


Fair enough, I'd thought that was a misconception - that while "Y is verbed by X" was the passive that "X verb Y" didn't have a formal name of its own. I understood that people tended to mistakenly *call* it the "active voice" in contrast to the "passive voice" but that this was an error. I am more than happy to be corrected on this issue (this is what I get for reading Language Log carelessly - I'm pretty sure I remember Geoff Pullum arguing that it made no sense to talk about "active voice" because all it could possibly mean was "anything that isn't the passive").
Axiomatic at 10:13 on 2012-06-27
I think the short version, where you end in night, is good because it gets all the atmospheric questions the reader might have out of the way in the quickest and most efficient way you can imagine.

I mean, unless I'm reading Stormgazer: Exciting Meterological Happenings, I don't really care that much about the weather. I want the writer to get out of the way and tell me about the guy digging a shallow grave on a lonely moor! You don't need to spend more words than "it was a dark and stormy night" to tell me he isn't doing it at noon.

Oh, and the people who tell you "was" is a bad word will also tell you "said" is a bad word, which tells you that they are NEVER EVER to be listened to about anything.
Axiomatic at 10:17 on 2012-06-27
Also, regarding Dickens, I'm a total philistine, but I hate his writing because whenever I try and read him, I imagine him whooping "WA HA HA!! I'M BEING PAID BY THE WORD FOR THIS!!" as he goes into a two-page digression on someone's tie*.

*Nicholas Nickleby, I think it was?
"Marx thinks X, but I think Y" is so simple and clear compared with all the awful variations on "It is believed that Marx's view on class was that..." that you otherwise get.

I think that kind of weaselling is what teachers generally want to avoid, the way students always want to attribute some vague opinion to "society." Sure, if you already know what Marx thinks, the idea that you also need my opinion on the subject is laughable, but I do need to learn to remember that ideas have sources.
Dan H at 10:41 on 2012-06-27
Ironically, that kind of weaseling is - as I think Guy observes - a consequence of slightly outdated advice about formal writing. I was taught that it was inappropriate to use the word "I" in formal writing when I was in secondary school, for example.

You get into this absurd situation where you have to invent arbitrary rules in order to get rid of the horrible stylistic errors that people make because of the *other* arbitrary rules.
Wardog at 11:02 on 2012-06-27
Well also it feels a bit childish.

In his seminal 1745 essay, Professor Blitherstock articulates the fundamental disconnect in ideology as represented by the competing modes of discourse present in the text but I THINK HE IS A BIG POOHEAD WHO HAS GOT IT WRONG.
I've seen high school teachers argue that if you let students at that age use "I" in a formal essay they'll use it constantly. So I sympathize with teachers who lose patience with the specific kinds of bad writing they see over and over and decide they aren't having that bullshit anymore. But of course that doesn't mean writing well is a result of following arbitrary rules.
Wardog at 11:11 on 2012-06-27
Also, regarding Dickens, I'm a total philistine, but I hate his writing because whenever I try and read him, I imagine him whooping "WA HA HA!! I'M BEING PAID BY THE WORD FOR THIS!!" as he goes into a two-page digression on someone's tie*.

*Nicholas Nickleby, I think it was?


*dies* To be fair, our beloved Wilkie does that as well but at least in his case it's entertaining. "I will get paid to have an Italian say 'what the deuce, what the deuce' all the time and describe an old lady extensively as being like a cabbage.'

Also, I can forgive Nick Nick ANYTHING for having a school teacher in it called Mr. M'Choakumchild.

MADE OF WIN BUT NOT SUBTLETY MR DICKENS.

Edit: o wait, it was Hard Times :/
but I THINK HE IS A BIG POOHEAD WHO HAS GOT IT WRONG.

Exactly, that would be stupid. What I'm trying to say is that it's generally believed in some circles by society that he's a big poohead.
Wardog at 11:19 on 2012-06-27
Exactly, that would be stupid. What I'm trying to say is that it's generally believed in some circles by society that he's a big poohead.


I love it.
Cammalot at 11:21 on 2012-06-27
Wait, wait -- Nick Nickleby had "Dotheboy Hall," pronounced "Dotheboy Hall," which was even more spectacular.

Choakchumchild was Hard Times. When I had to do that in school, I thought it was spoof Dickens.
Cammalot at 11:22 on 2012-06-27
D'oh, again with the double posting. Sorry Kyra, I just saw your edit. I got overexcited due to nostalgia.
Arthur B at 11:31 on 2012-06-27
I'm just amazed at Dickens' self-restraint that in Bleak House Richard's surname isn't something ridiculous like
Spoiledbratwhofucksuphisownlifeforstupidreasons
.
Shimmin at 15:30 on 2012-06-27
I'm pretty sure I remember Geoff Pullum arguing that it made no sense to talk about "active voice" because all it could possibly mean was "anything that isn't the passive"

Quite possibly he did, but by the same token it makes no sense to talk about "passive voice" because &c...

Just to add to the fun, there are several other voices that don't exist in English, notably the antipassive, used in ergative languages and the 'middle voice' which turns up when you can't clearly classify whether the noun is doing something or having something done to it, in situations like "he slowly froze to death".
Jamie Johnston at 18:53 on 2012-06-27
From my little experience trying to help people with writing (not actually teaching, but just giving constructive criticism on comedy sketches and songs), I'd say that the most satisfactory way to do it is usually to avoid voicing general rules at all. Often either people don't take them on board because they're too abstract or else they take them on board in a very abstract way and apply them inappropriately.

For example, I think it probably is a fairly sound general rule of comedy to try to put the 'punchline' word or phrase (i.e. the one that reveals what the joke is and turns it from a sentence into a joke) as near to the end of the sentence as you can. But I'd rather just look at a sketch someone's actually written and say 'I think this line might work better if you moved this bit to the end', let them see that it's an improvement, and after doing that a few times they'll understand (consciously or unconsciously) why it works.

But of course that's a lot of one-to-one 'contact time' (as I think it's called in teaching — is that right, Dan?) and I can understand how people end up just throwing around bald imperatives like 'omit unnecessary words' or 'use active verbs', and in turn how people seize them and apply them dogmatically because in the absence of individual context-sensitive feedback this is all they're getting on the subject of 'how to write'. :(
Jamie Johnston at 23:09 on 2012-06-27
London is stormy?

Except at occasional intervals.
Michal at 16:20 on 2012-06-29
This article gets at something I've been thinking of for a while. Not about writing, since I learned a long time ago that most how-to books about fiction and writing advice blogs are worse than useless. There aren't really any set rules about writing except those involving basic grammar, and writers can break those every once in a while too.

No, I'm thinking about a lot of literary criticism on the internet that gets caught up in sentence minutiae like that Harry Potter analysis discussed earlier in the Playpen. I can't think of that many writers who are able to sustain beautiful prose throughout the length of a novel--J.M. Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy, Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Chabon in their shorter works, maybe. I also can't think of many novels I've put down just because the prose was terrible (Eragon and The Skylark of Space are the only ones in recent memory that had such significant problems at a sentence level I couldn't make it beyond the first few pages...and there are many other reasons those books are awful).

Meaning, it's really easy to just pull out a bit of awkward phrasing or a weirdly-

constructed paragraph from a novel, stick it in your review, and act like it's representative of the writing in the whole work when most of the time it's not. Even Seventh Son (and I hate, hate, HATE Orson Scott Card's writing) has a nice sentence or two at the end. While Mieville is hailed as a great stylist but I found a lot of the writing in Perdido Street Station tiresome. What frustrated me about Wizardry and Wild Romance is that Michael Moorcock would do this all the time, except just call a quoted passage "good" or "bad" writing and then move on as if it were self-evident, where if you just had me read both those passages side-by-side without Moorcock's guiding hand, most of the time I honestly wouldn't be able to make that judgement call.

I think you can at least recognize/appreciate when something is well or badly written but

it's kind of hard to define at a certain level of craft. I haven't been able to read through much of Valente's work but I can at least say the prose is gorgeous. It's easy to say The Eye of Argon is badly written 'cause it's chalk-full of grammatical errors, malapropisms and incoherent sentences that have nothing to do with the writing rules/guidelines which keep on popping up on blogs.

Then I also look at my bookshelf and see that a good deal of what's there has been translated from other languages, and that some of my favourite books are translations that are done...well, competently, nothing there that makes you pause at a sentence and read it over and over again just to hear the beauty of the words. I can assume The Long Ships is wonderfully written in Swedish because the author was an award-winning poet, but unless I learn Swedish I'm not going to know because Michael Meyer's translation isn't all that poetic. And I've heard Dumas was a terrible prose stylist in French but, well, I honestly don't care 'cause The Three Musketeers has plenty of other qualities that make it worth reading, and the English translation is perfectly
readable. How do you apply the sentence-level microscope to most translations, let alone "rules" of good writing that would make it really damn hard to do a semi-accurate translation if you followed them?
Sister Magpie at 17:08 on 2012-06-29
This article gets at something I've been thinking of for a while. Not about
writing, since I learned a long time ago that most how-to books about fiction
and writing advice blogs are worse than useless. There aren't really any set
rules about writing except those involving basic grammar, and writers can break
those every once in a while too.


Yes, for me--and maybe for others--it's really just a case of whether or not the actual style is so bad (or so unlikeable to you personally) that it's distracting. For instance, to use the HP example I've never had a hard time reading it. It's not something I remember as being particularly beautiful in terms of style, but I often don't notice a lot of the nitpicks about it. Or sometimes I flat out disagree with some of the criticism, and how things "obviously" should have been written in a different way that doesn't sound like a good idea to me at all.

But there are times when it jumps out at me and makes me think about it. Like conversations where there's a ton of adverbs, enough that I notice and start thinking about it etc.

But in general, I think problems with the minutia often are genuinely valid if it makes the whole thing an awful read, like listening to somebody sing a song where most of the notes are flat. Just as sometimes someone has a writing style that's so nice you notice it as one of the things you love about it. But often the style is just there to not call attention to itself so you can concentrate on the story.
Wardog at 19:54 on 2012-06-30
Yes, I have long since come to similar conclusions.

I've been too busy to do much reviewing lately (SADNESS) but since I started babbling my opinions about books on the internet I've massively massively scaled back on how much I'm willing to categorise something as being 'bad writing'. The way we use language is so fluid and flexible that obsessing about the use of punctuation or cliche strikes me as churlish and unhelpful. Also a judgement of 'bad writing' is so often presented as objective rather than subjective. And a lot of the time when people criticise 'bad' writing what they're actually talking about is writing that doesn't adhere to arbitrary standards they have pretty much invented.

I mean, of course, there's an issue of CLARITY - if something is not communicating what it's supposed to be communicating that *is* bad writing. But from that point onwards the spectrum seems to me endless and uncategorisable.

Most of my experiences actually mirror Michal's - I ploughed through a couple of chapters of Eragon and gave up because I was bored by the banality of the prose. That made it bad writing for me because it stopped me actually engaging with the story or the characters but plenty of people have skipped unimpeded through Eragon and (apparently???) enjoyed it. Again, I found EL Jamess' writing in 50 Shades borderline unbearable because it was repetitive; equally it tells you things rather than demonstrates them but that isn't me trying to invoke the ol "show don't tell rule" it just happened to get in the way of me engaging emotionally in the text. And, yes, I've tried and tried to read Valente; she is genuinely a beautiful, poetic, original writer but I ... just ... don't ... enjoy .... reading ... her. And I feel pretty bad about that, actually. I know it means I must forfeit my vagina.

Sorry, I'm babbling a bit but the notion of good/bad writing as explored in reviews does sort of trouble me. I mean, I know JKR gets a lot of criticism for poor writing but, to be honest, I found her pedestrian prose perfectly functional, at least until the final book when suddenly it went all histrionic about death being there like a thing that was there and Dobby's eyes reflecting the careless stars and all that claptrap. And I kind of feel the same about Meyer. It's not amazing but it does the job - and usually it doesn't jerk me out of the text.

Equally I often feel that reviewers who obsess about 'bad writing' and like to demonstrate the ways in which something was "done wrong" or "should" have been done differently are pseudo-writers, which is an approach to reviewing I particularly despise. I think if you're reviewing a book it should be about, well, the book - not about you showing off what an awesome writer you'd surely be if only you could get published darnit.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2012-08-01
What I'm mostly interested in – or mostly concerned about if you prefer – are the strange, quasi-superstitious writing rules which people cling to (and worse, which they seek to enforce on other people), and which I think “dark and stormy night” nicely illustrates.

A couple of years ago I read a book called Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by David Gerrold (writer of The Trouble With Tribbles and Blood and Fire, and I can still remember two points he raised which may be relevant to this discussion. The first was that people seem to have an irrational aversion to saying “I don't know”—so you ask them a question like “Who really shot President Kennedy?” or “Why was the third season of the original Star Trek so bad?” and many of them will cast about for a plausible-seeming answer rather than admit ignorance, even when it's perfectly valid.

It occurs to me that this might also explain at least some of the bizarre arguments you get, Dan—people can't figure out the problem with “It was a dark and stormy night” right away, and so they make up something vaguely plausible on the spot; I admit I was guilty of beginning to do something of the sort when the issue first arose in the Playpen, and I'm probably at least a bit more familiar with the origin and issues of the phrase than most people these days.

Shimmin: Incidentally, if you're not allowed to use "be", how are you supposed to describe anything at all?

Now Gerrold's second point comes into play. He titles one of the chapters in Worlds of Wonder “To be or naught to be,” where he discusses a writing style called “E Prime,” which advocates removal of all instances of the verb “to be” (including derivations) from a document. As I recall, the underlying logic of E Prime runs something like this: the verb “to be” implies stasis, to say that something “is” merely tells one that it exists; whereas in reality, nothing simply “is,” everything exists in a dynamic state. If a thing exists then it also acts, and we have words to describe that action. So instead of saying “it was raining heavily” one might say “the rain fell in torrents.” (I believe I read somewhere that at least some indigenous languages work the same way.

I seem to remember Gerrold didn't necessarily buy into the philosophy behind E Prime, but thought it makes for an interesting experiment. He reported writing a trilogy entirely in E Prime (or, at least trying, I can't remember if he said he succeeded) and, of course, he wrote that chapter in E Prime. Apparently, people can accomplish a lot while avoiding the verb “to be” if they really put their minds to it.

When I read that chapter, it inspired me to try to write an already ambitious project I had taken up in E Prime. In hindsight, I regard that decision as a colossal mistake, but I still find the idea kind of interesting.

Cammalot: I'm having a disagreement right now with a tutor over not splitting infinitives (which I maintain were a misguided attempt to turn English into Latin),

The structure of this sentence confuses me. Are you saying you regard splitting infinitives as an attempt to turn English into Latin, or the push to stop people from splitting them?

Kyra: since I started babbling my opinions about books on the internet I've massively massively scaled back on how much I'm willing to categorise something as being 'bad writing' … Equally I often feel that reviewers who obsess about 'bad writing' and like to demonstrate the ways in which something was "done wrong" or "should" have been done differently are pseudo-writers, which is an approach to reviewing I particularly despise.

Huh, I hardly ever take much notice of prose, good or bad, and for a while now I've felt like that was a weakness of mine as a reviewer because I got the impression it's the sort of thing reviewers are supposed to talk about. Now I feel like I'm off the hook so, uh, yay?

And, yes, I've tried and tried to read Valente; she is genuinely a beautiful, poetic, original writer but I ... just ... don't ... enjoy .... reading ... her. And I feel pretty bad about that, actually.

That was pretty much my reaction to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairieland in a Ship of Her Own Making, though I did think the Marquis' true identity made for a damn good twist.
Shimmin at 20:46 on 2012-08-01
As I recall, the underlying logic of E Prime runs something like this: the verb “to be” implies stasis, to say that something “is” merely tells one that it exists; whereas in reality, nothing simply “is,” everything exists in a dynamic state. If a thing exists then it also acts, and we have words to describe that action. So instead of saying “it was raining heavily” one might say “the rain fell in torrents.” (I believe I read somewhere that at least some indigenous languages work the same way.... Apparently, people can accomplish a lot while avoiding the verb “to be” if they really put their minds to it.
What you said is interesting, but I think you missed what I was getting at, which is it's the single most common way of using adjectives: "The cat is black."

That alone is a pretty significant element of language to exclude, without coming onto continuous verb forms and things like "It's not every day..."
Michal at 21:22 on 2012-08-01
Valente is a writer who I'll admire when reading her, but when I put down one of her books, something just keeps me from picking it up again.

I suspect this didn't happen with The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own *out of breath* Making because you can read it in one sitting.
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2012-08-01
Okay, Shim. I don't mean to proselytize E Prime; though I find some merit in the logic which states that the life process by definition does not exist in a state of stasis and we should therefore not use language which implies that it does, I certainly use derivations of the verb "to be" as much as anyone else.

That said, I think E Prime has a bit more potential than you seem to credit it with. To take your example, I can think of two solutions off the top of my head: first, you tie the adjective into an action, as in "The black cat jumps off the blue porch." Or, you can modify the description to say "The cat has black fur."

I think I'm prepared to concur with the advocates of E Prime that you can, with sufficient imagination, convey all the ideas possible in the English language in E Prime that you can convey with the verb "to be" as well. If that's where you find fault, then I think we have a disagreement. If you simply mean that conveying those ideas entirely in E Prime makes the speaker's or writer's task vastly more difficult, then I completely agree. For the most part, I don't consider it worth the bothering of trying.
Arthur B at 22:44 on 2012-08-01
I don't mean to proselytize E Prime; though I find some merit in the logic which states that the life process by definition does not exist in a state of stasis and we should therefore not use language which implies that it does, I certainly use derivations of the verb "to be" as much as anyone else.

Two counterpoints:

- Not everything is alive and dynamic; excising language implying that something is dead and static makes us unable to describe dead, static things. That isn't helpful.

- The idea that "to be" implies stasis is absurd. Many "to be" statements imply action. For example: "the city is burning".
Dan H at 22:45 on 2012-08-01
I think I'm prepared to concur with the advocates of E Prime that you can, with sufficient imagination, convey all the ideas possible in the English language in E Prime that you can convey with the verb "to be" as well.


My my attitude towards this position is one of skepticism and unconvincedness. More specifically while I am sure that the elimination of the verb to be exists within the set of all possible things, I do not believe that so to do would have the effect of clarifying writing.

To suggest that removing the verb "to be" from your writing improves it possesses qualities of absurdity.
Robinson L at 00:15 on 2012-08-02
Fair points, both, Arthur. I could quibble about the conflation of "dead" and "static" - a dead body does not exist in a state of stasis, it exists in a state of decay - but I don't think that undermines your actual argument. I haven't read Gerrold's explanation of E Prime in years, and possibly I've done its proponents a disservice, but since I don't ascribe to the logic of E Prime, I see no reason to continue arguing it.

Dan: while I am sure that the elimination of the verb to be exists within the set of all possible things, I do not believe that so to do would have the effect of clarifying writing.

To suggest that removing the verb "to be" from your writing improves it possesses qualities of absurdity.

Oh no; I didn't mean to defend the argument that use of the verb "to be" constitutes bad writing when I brought it up. I threw out the subject of E Prime as a tangential point of interest, as a possible answer to Shim's question about what would happen if we curtailed our use of the verb. To my knowledge, the advocates of E Prime argue for its use on philosophical grounds, not because they consider use of "to be" bad writing.
the logic which states that the life process by definition does not exist in a state of stasis and we should therefore not use language which implies that it does


With the understanding that you're not especially arguing for it and only mentioned it (I think it's a really odd idea and deserves some discussion regardless):
That logic is sort of confusing to me. The verb doesn't imply stasis, at all! Not only are there gerunds, as per Arthur's comment, but "is" is just... present tense. It's just talking about one specific time without automatically mentioning other times; just using "is" (or equivilent constructions) doesn't imply that it'll never be different or never was different.

There's also the fact that often, you can use non-present-tense forms of "to be" to actually imply change. I would probably only say "It was raining earlier" if it's not raining anymore or if perhaps I'm not aware of what the weather is right at this moment (I just mean that I'd phrase it slightly differently if it rained, then stopped, then started again ("It was raining earlier, too") or if I know it hasn't stopped since then ("It started raining earlier and never let up")).

Or, you can use future tense to say things will be different than they are now (although you can also use it to say things won't change). "It will be raining soon."
Shimmin at 07:46 on 2012-08-02
With the understanding that you're not especially arguing for it and only mentioned it

ditto...

Or, you can use future tense to say things will be different than they are now

English use of verb forms is pretty odd, but you can also, of course, use the present tense to express changes that'll take place in the future, or your intentions for the future. "I'm going to France next week", "The train is due at 9.47pm", "the ice is melting fast and soon New York will be under twelve feet of water".

As I recall, the underlying logic of E Prime runs something like this: the verb “to be” implies stasis, to say that something “is” merely tells one that it exists; whereas in reality, nothing simply “is,” everything exists in a dynamic state.

As Arthur said, I don't see any reason to agree that "be" implies stasis; in most cases it's just the Standard English form for linking nouns with attributed adjectives or nouns. Logically, therefore, E Prime advocates should argue for more widespread use of nonstandard dialects that omit these attributive "be"s, producing sentences like "He tired", which would greatly reduce the mental distress they suffer. Or indeed, move to China.

At the same time, I don't see why no other verb has the same problem. I might say: The verb "have" implies stasis, to say that something "has" something else merely tells one that one possesses the other; whereas in reality, nothing is simply possessed, everything exists in a web of interrelationship in permanent flux. A woman may 'have' blonde hair, but this is a temporary state between infant baldness and the silver hair of age. A boy may 'have' a sister, but there is no ownership; each 'has' the other, while the meaning of that relationship may change through chance or choice, as other relationships rise and fall, or indeed through death. I may 'have' twenty pounds, but it may belong to someone else; I may 'have' twenty pounds of my own in hand, but the money is transient and will pass elsewhere; I may 'have' a thousand pounds in the bank, but the money is merely a number in a database, with no physical form, which is simply assigned to an arbitrary collection of coins and notes if I seek to withdraw it.

If a thing exists then it also acts, and we have words to describe that action. So instead of saying “it was raining heavily” one might say “the rain fell in torrents.” (I believe I read somewhere that at least some indigenous languages work the same way.)

But what if the rain isn't falling in torrents?

I reckon a significant problem with this is that by breaking the expectations of normal language, it creates emphasis. We tend to focus on things that don't fit the usual patterns. "The rain fell in torrents", or "the rain fell lightly", or "the rain fell" are all relatively odd ways of saying "it rained" and we're likely to focus on them, in the same way that new metaphors are generally more striking than familiar ones. In some cases, you'll end up with paragraphs where fairly trivial bits of description are the most salient bit, because those would normally use a "be" form but have been rewritten, and now overshadow what should be the main points. In other cases, you might end up with heavy, overwritten-seeming prose because basically everything seems to have equal emphasis.

I'm a bit confused by "some indigenous languages work the same way". I'm assuming you mean some group North American indigenous languages. Do you mean, they have specific verb forms for 'rain'? That's not particularly odd, I mean English has one, it's just we generally use auxiliary verbs for a lot of grammatical nuances. But you can perfectly well write "it rained heavily" if you want, or even "it rained torrentially", which is grammatically equivalent to "the rain fell in torrents". Have I missed your point?

...oh, and I'd also question whether "acts" is a useful way to think about things like rain, let alone what you do about genuinely static things like rocks, trees, and buildings.
Arthur B at 10:15 on 2012-08-02
With the understanding that you're not especially arguing for it and only mentioned it

^ Adding my name to this disclaimer...

Fair points, both, Arthur. I could quibble about the conflation of "dead" and "static" - a dead body does not exist in a state of stasis, it exists in a state of decay - but I don't think that undermines your actual argument.

I'm not sure that everything we regard as dead or not-alive really is in a state of decay. "Howard's body is dead" may be a suitable sentence to apply this quibble to, but how often do we actually say that? We usually say "Howard is dead" as a statement about the present - and, unless you believe in an afterlife, irreversible and perpetual - state of the person in question.

At the same time, I don't see why no other verb has the same problem. I might say: The verb "have" implies stasis, to say that something "has" something else merely tells one that one possesses the other; whereas in reality, nothing is simply possessed, everything exists in a web of interrelationship in permanent flux.

Pretty much why I don't see any benefit to saying "the cat has black fur" over "the cat is black". It is generally understood that when we talk about the colour of cats we are referring to their fur. The natural colour of the cat's fur isn't really something which is likely to change all that much during its lifetime either. Also, to suggest that we need to imply that the cat is "acting" in this case when its possession of fur is an entirely passive matter on its part - seems silly.
Dan H at 13:10 on 2012-08-02
To my knowledge, the advocates of E Prime argue for its use on philosophical
grounds, not because they consider use of "to be" bad writing.


But surely their philosophical objection *constitutes* an assertion that the use of "to be" is bad writing? Their argument, as I understand it, is that it is wrong to say something "is X" when instead you should say something "does X" because whatever something is, it is also doing something. They might give this a fancy name, but it's actually straight out of Strunk & White.

It is, of course, *possible* to write without any arbitrary element of the language (you could probably eliminate verbs entirely if you didn't mind soundling like you were writing avante-garde poetry). But it produces *worse* writing.

By way of example, here is the first paragraph of this post rewritten in E-Prime:

But surely their philosophical objection *constitutes* an assertion that the use of "to be" has the quality of bad writing? Their argument, as I understand it, takes the form of saying that it displays wrongness to say something "is X" when instead you should say something "does X" because whatever something "is", it also does something. They might give this a fancy name, but actually comes straight out of Strunk & White.

And the same paragraph with no verbs at all (except when they are mentioned in quotation marks):

But their philosophical objection: assertion that "to be" bad writing, surely? Their argument: "is X" wrong, instead should "does X" because whatever something "is", it also "does" . A fancy name, perhaps, but actually straight out of Strunk & White.

Other examples of E-Prime in action:

War! (huh) What does it do good for?

Marley had died to begin with.

I possess the identity of an alligator. I mother, father and call for you.

You surmount. You tower in Pisa. You can be identified with the smile. On the Mona Lisa.

You! Currently Inhabit! SPARTA!

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day / No, thou hast greater loveliness and a more temperate climate.

And of course, since this was apparently proposed by somebody who wrote for Star Trek, we could try:

Space. The final frontier. This document chronicles the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Dan H at 13:32 on 2012-08-02
Damn, missed one. It should, of course, be "I identify you with the smile on the Mona Lisa".
From Wikipedia:

Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing. For example, the sentence "the film was good" could translate into E-Prime as "I liked the film" or as "the film made me laugh". The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker's experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

I can appreciate their concern; it's apparently easy for a lot of people to confuse their own opinion with an absolute or objective point of view. However, I don't think torturing English works as a solution.
Andy G at 14:18 on 2012-08-02
I have been reading some of the "philosophical justifications" on Wikipedia. As far as I can tell, they basically think lots of linguistic forms are redundant (and effectively advocate impoverishing the expressivity of language - sounds rather 1984-esque to me!) or ambiguous - which, in context, they are not.

For instance, they think that "X is good" can be better re-expressed as "I like X." Which is nonsense, because one is a judgement about the object, whereas the other is about my feelings towards the object. I can meaningfully disagree with you about whether X is good - I can't meaningfully disagree with you about whether you like X.
Dan H at 15:47 on 2012-08-02
I can appreciate their concern; it's apparently easy for a lot of people to
confuse their own opinion with an absolute or objective point of view. However,
I don't think torturing English works as a solution.


And even if torturing English *did* work as a solution the verb "to be" is not the problem here. Consider the following (excessively large number of) examples:

1) "The film was good."
2) "The film was enjoyable"
3) "I enjoyed the film"
4) "I thought the film was good"
5) "I found the film enjoyable"
6) "I thought the film was enjoyable."
7) "I have just seen a good film"
8) "Last week I saw a highly enjoyable film."
9) "All right-thinking people consider the film excellent."

Statements 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain a form of the verb "to be." Statements 1, 2, 7, 8 and (arguably) 9 contain absolute statements about the qualities of the film. Statements 3, 4, 6 and 6 make it clear that the speaker is only expressing their opinion.

Not only is there no real correlation between the use of "be verbs" and opinion-stated-as-fact, but even if there was, it is absurd to try to prevent people from stating opinions as facts by banning a particular linguistic structure. It's the equivalent of saying that people shouldn't be able to use the word "honestly" because they might use it to preface untrue statements.

As Andy points out, "I like X" is not a "better" way of saying the same thing as "X is good", it says something *completely different*. Now some people might believe that it is better to say that you liked something than to say it is good, but such a person is wishing for people to *say something else*, not for them to express the same idea differently.

If I ask my bank manager for a loan, and they say "no, you can't have one" then if I want to be a complete dickhead I could observe that they should have said "no, you may not have one", but not even the most anally-retentive primary school teacher would tell them that the correct structure was "yes, you may have one" because that *means something different*.

To put it another way, how exactly are we supposed to apply this principle to *actual statements of fact*? Taking this advice at face value, we wind up sounding like those guys in that one episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Instead of saying "the sky is blue" we have to say "the the sky reminds me of still waters and forget-me-nots".

It's going to make my Physics classes bloodly difficult.
Dan H at 16:52 on 2012-08-02
Having looked at Wikipedia, the philosophical justifications seem *completely insane*. They seem to be based on people freaking out that people sometimes use forms of the verb "to be" to express concepts other than "is identical with". They seem to think that it if I say "Shim is a Library Assistant" that this is falsely implying that Shim is at one with the concept of Library-Assistant-ness.
Arthur B at 17:23 on 2012-08-02
Statements 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain a form of the verb "to be." Statements 1, 2, 7, 8 and (arguably) 9 contain absolute statements about the qualities of the film. Statements 3, 4, 6 and 6 make it clear that the speaker is only expressing their opinion.

I'd also point out that, taken on their own, I think most people who aren't tedious internet pedants will give all those statements except 9 the benefit of the doubt and assume the person saying them was giving their opinion of the film rather than actually saying that the film was good/enjoyable as an objective fact, because it's generally understood that "good" and "enjoyable" in this sort of context are going to be subjective matters.

On top of that, in the right context even statement 9 could be understood that way, if it was clear that the speaker was engaging in a bit of hyperbole (and how grey and pasty and flavourless would discourse be without hyperbole? I'd have to delete all my reviews and comments if it were banned).

There are, of course, arseholes out there who will mistake their opinion for fact and argue accordingly. There's also many people who are fully aware that their opinions are opinions but are still willing to stand by them and argue their case. (In the latter case, although ultimately their opinion just boils down to "I feel X about this film because that is what I feel about the film", in most cases there'll be at least some nuances to that whereby they can justify and expand on their response, like "I feel X about this film because of Y feature of it, Y feature being a thing which when executed in this way makes me feel X".)

The first class of people are dickheads. The second class of people are usually assets to any conversation about stuff which expresses an opinion more developed than "thumbs up" or "thumbs down". The list of statements you offered are statements of a sort which both classes of people can and do make all the time. You can't tell whether someone is presenting their opinion as fact by picking out an individual sentence and analysing it; you can only tell it by looking at the full context of those sentences, looking at the tone they write in, considering their usual writing style (if you have prior exposure to it) and judging whether (if they make statements like 9) they're just being very enthusiastic and boisterous about it or whether they sincerely believe people who dislike the film have something deeply wrong with them.

In general I think it's basic courtesy and politeness to assume people are addressing their own opinions when they declare a movie is good, whatever language they use, unless their tone and the overall thrust of what they are saying gives you a compelling reason to think otherwise. I've seen way too many people derail discussions by saying "But that's just, like, your opinion man" when nobody reasonable would imagine that the person they were addressing didn't realise that. Nobody's going to stuff every single little statement of opinion they make with weasel words and caveats; eventually you just have to assume people recognise you're talking about your own personal experiences. Yes, as someone who's writing/speaking you bear a responsibility for how you express yourself, but if people are intent on reading you in bad faith and assuming the absolute worst of everything you say then you're never going to reach them anyway.

That said: anyone who doesn't like Blade Runner lacks the basic quality of empathy that is a requirement for being considered human, and should be killed for the good of society.
Arthur B at 17:26 on 2012-08-02
They seem to think that it if I say "Shim is a Library Assistant" that this is falsely implying that Shim is at one with the concept of Library-Assistant-ness.

Are you implying he isn't? Shim is the Bibliomessiah, man, he's Zen and the Art of Library Maintenance.
I may 'have' twenty pounds of my own in hand, but the money is transient and will pass elsewhere


"Who steals my purse steals trash! [...] 'Twas mine, 'tis his..."

:D

Tangentially, your bit about "has" reminds me of one of C.S. Lewis's essays, or perhaps aside in an essay, about the different meanings of "my", putting forth a sort of hierarchy or scale with higher "levels" having less/no actual implied ownership. Something like, "my boots, my brother, my country, my god", although I think there were actually more in the middle. I think it's interesting because I think you could classify the uses as indicating (if obliquely) something you possess in some sense (even if not something physical). There's an object or intangible (ideas, emotions, experiences) which is yours in the ownership sense or close to it, a person you have a relationship with (shared "ownership" of the relationship in this case!), and a group you have a membership in.

I can appreciate their concern; it's apparently easy for a lot of people to confuse their own opinion with an absolute or objective point of view. However, I don't think torturing English works as a solution.


I don't know; even if E Prime doesn't consistently produce better, clearer writing (which I don't think it does do), I can see how it could have some value as an exercise. Sometimes just being made aware of your habits (and it seems logical to me that intentionally avoiding be, etc., would make you aware of how you used it normally) is valuable and helps you decide what you should change. It could also make you consider other ways to phrase things which you might not have otherwise even considered as needing rephrasing, even if you ultimately decided that the regular way was better.

I don't know whether it does value as an exercise (I suspect the answer is: "to some people") but I think it could.

A bit in the wikipedia article that caught my eye:

E-Prime makes it more difficult to hide assumptions in statements about The Other or equivalent constructions such as "they" or "most people" or "the public" or "the taxpayer". E-Prime disallows forms of statement such as "they say X is Y" or "most people are into Z" or "the taxpayer is angry" while allowing statements such as "a clear majority of people say X always coexists with Y" or "most people approve of Z" or "the taxpayer doesn't like measure Q" or "lots of taxpayers express anger about Q".


Yes those second phrasings are definitely 75% less weaselly. What? In the first one, changing "they" to "a clear majority of people" has nothing to do with eliminating that verb and may be inaccurate, and it's STILL not saying who, exactly, is saying "x is y". In the second one, "most people" is the weasel-word flag, and changing "are into" to "approve of" doesn't make it less vague. In the third one, they've still got "the taxpayer" in the first alternative, and the second one is only better because it says "lots of taxpayers" instead of "the taxpayer", which is at least not treating taxpayers as some kind of monolith. I don't think there's a significant difference in meaning between "is/are angry" and "express anger" unless you're trying to say that they're only EXPRESSING anger but don't really mean it (or the opposite, that they're angry but aren't saying so).

Sorry, just wanted to get that off my chest.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2012-08-02
I appear to have touched off another powder keg. I suppose I should have seen this coming.

A this point, I feel disinclined to argue on behalf of a line of logic which I don't actually subscribe to, so forgive me if I do not engage with many of the arguments raised above. I see many good points (such as the one Melanie raises at the end of her most recent comment - not a lot more difficult to hide assumptions, eh?) which I feel no need to comment on further.

Shimmin: A boy may 'have' a sister, but there is no ownership; each 'has' the other, while the meaning of that relationship may change through chance or choice, as other relationships rise and fall, or indeed through death.

Melanie: your bit about "has" reminds me of one of C.S. Lewis's essays, or perhaps aside in an essay, about the different meanings of "my", putting forth a sort of hierarchy or scale with higher "levels" having less/no actual implied ownership.

At the risk of opening another can of worms equivalent to the one we now find ourselves embroiled in, I feel compelled to point out that my Marxist philosophy professor once noted regretfully the tendency of out language to describe relationships in terms of ownership: my sister, my friends, my pet, my philosophy professor, my (our) language, my book club, my country - he at least seemed to think the construction bears that implication in all circumstances.

I reckon a significant problem with this is that by breaking the expectations of normal language, it creates emphasis.

That seems plausible under some circumstances, but I suspect if someone writes a whole book (or even an essay) in E-Prime, the reader will quickly adjust to the style and not feel like the writer emphasizes every other noun. Now I feel curious how David Gerrold's experiment worked out - though probably not curious enough to track down and read it this minute.

I'm a bit confused by "some indigenous languages work the same way". I'm assuming you mean some group North American indigenous languages.

I seem to remember reading a couple of years ago (maybe in the same essay, maybe a different one) that some indigenous languages (I think North American, though maybe also South American and aboriginal Australian) do not have an equivalent of the verb "to be," and that in those languages, you cannot describe what something is, you have to describe what it does. Again, I read this stuff years ago and I've probably forgotten or misremembered some important details.

In fact, given what other people have described from their experiences with E-Prime on Wikipedia, I think I may have inadvertently conflated some points from Gerrold's chapter on E-Prime which I read a couple years ago, and whatever I read about indigenous languages a couple of years ago, just to add to the confusion.

and I'd also question whether "acts" is a useful way to think about things like rain, let alone what you do about genuinely static things like rocks, trees, and buildings.

I think that sort of depends on your definition of stasis. I'd separate organic objects like trees from rocks and buildings, because they grow, accumulate and shed leaves, gain and lose branches, draw moisture from the ground, sway in the breeze, and so on. Even inorganic objects like rocks and buildings change over time from the wear and tear of wind and rain if nothing else - they may not proactively take action, but action nonetheless takes place. You could define that as stasis, but I think you could argue with equal justification for defining it as non-stasis.

Dan: But surely their philosophical objection *constitutes* an assertion that the use of "to be" is bad writing?

Yes, I suppose so, Dan. I just meant that the other objections to "bad writing" I've seen in this article and on this thread have been (alleged) violations of a conventionally accepted paradigm of what constitutes "good writing," whereas E-Prime advocates contend that the conventionally accepted paradigm *itself* constitutes bad writing, and presumably we ought to swap it out for their paradigm.

It is, of course, *possible* to write without any arbitrary element of the language ... But it produces *worse* writing.

No, here I disagree with you Dan - at least, I don't think it *necessarily* produces worse writing. I don't subscribe to E-Prime as a philosophy, but I will defend it as a convention which a writer may choose to adopt as a personal challenge. Lots of writers of fiction and poetry like to challenge themselves with similarly arbitrary conventions and though I haven't particularly sought out examples, I get the impression that at least some of them prove successful. Looked at through that lens, E-Prime strikes me as less restrictive than a sonnet or haiku, or writing an entire novel without one using the letter "e" (which I think somebody has done).

To me, your post implies that a writer committed to the challenge of writing in E-Prime who wanted to convey the same meaning as the sentences you cite would have no other choice but to remove all forms the verb "to be" and then stuff whatever convoluted phrases necessary into the sentence they found necessary to avoid use of "to be" *while retaining the essential sentence structure*. In reality, I think our hypothetical writer would more likely *rewrite the whole phrase* so as to render use of "to be" unnecessary, if not superfluous.

True, use of E-Prime would lose us many phrases in the English language which we consider beautiful or iconic (one reason for my ambivalence toward use of E-Prime), but I think the language contains enough versatility that it would not automatically doom us to communication through tortured prose.

Basically, sort of like what Melanie said in the middle of her last comment, only less concise.
Shimmin at 21:33 on 2012-08-02
I appear to have touched off another powder keg. I suppose I should have seen this coming.

You know what Ferrets are like, the scent of blood in the water... wait, that's sharks.

Seriously though, I'm genuinely intrigued by this new thing I never heard of before, but hope it's not coming across as a Robinson v. the World thing. I appreciate you're just discussing someone else's theory that you're interested in.

Shim is the Bibliomessiah, man, he's Zen and the Art of Library Maintenance.

I stand amidst sixty thousand tomes, and hear their cries in my bones. The Library of Congress Classification is writ upon my brow. The flexing of my merest finger is the turning of the page, the closing of the stack. I am become Book, devourer of Words.

...sorry, I'm in the middle of turning two complicated libraries into one complicated library, so I've spent the last fortnight measuring libraries, visualing hypothetical library arrangements, directing moving crews and unloading thousands upon thousands of books for hours on end, and I may be slightly madder than usual just now.

Tangentially, your bit about "has" reminds me of one of C.S. Lewis's essays, or perhaps aside in an essay, about the different meanings of "my", putting forth a sort of hierarchy or scale with higher "levels" having less/no actual implied ownership. Something like, "my boots, my brother, my country, my god", although I think there were actually more in the middle. I think it's interesting because I think you could classify the uses as indicating (if obliquely) something you possess in some sense (even if not something physical). There's an object or intangible (ideas, emotions, experiences) which is yours in the ownership sense or close to it, a person you have a relationship with (shared "ownership" of the relationship in this case!), and a group you have a membership in.


I feel compelled to point out that my Marxist philosophy professor once noted regretfully the tendency of out language to describe relationships in terms of ownership: my sister, my friends, my pet, my philosophy professor, my (our) language, my book club, my country - he at least seemed to think the construction bears that implication in all circumstances.

Ooh, soapbox!

So Manx, the third branch of Gaelic for anyone who hasn't heard me talking about this before (also, there's this thing called "Coke" you should look into), has three different and distinct ways of expressing those relationships in English. Because Celtic languages are hardcore, none of them is a verb. Other Celtic languages also tend to have more than one, although whether the same connotations exist I don't know.

The first is the possessive pronoun, as in English. While historically it could be used for anything, in modern Manx it's largely reserved for close relationships. So you'd say "my vraar" (my brother), "my laue" (my hand), "my ghooinney" (my male partner) and often "my charrey" (my friend), which all express fairly intimate relationships. While it's not grammatically wrong to use it elsewhere, the connotation makes it weird and unusual.

The others are the prepositions "lesh" and "ec", which broadly translate as "with" and "at". You can use "ec" for any possessive relationship, including the intimate ones mentioned above if you want; that's especially true for things like "I have a friend in London" ("ta carrey aym* ayns Lunnin") where "have" would be used in English. Broadly, though, it's the general all-purpose possession marker, used for houses, watches, dogs, ideas, jobs and everything else. What you're actually saying is, "there's a X at me".

"Ec" also contrasts with "lesh", which in these constructions implies ownership. So you'd say "y dooinney s'lesh y magher" (the man who owns the field) but "y dooinney s'echey y kishtey" (the man who has the box). Similarly, you'd say "ta'n lioar lhiam" (I own the book) but "ta'n lioar aym" (I have the book). However, in general you just use "ec" unless you want to emphasise ownership, and context keeps things clear.

* Just to clarify, prepositions inflect in Celtic languages, which is where the echeys and lhiams and ayms come from...

Oh, here's the quote, from The Screwtape Letters
We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog', 'my servant', 'my wife', 'my father', 'my master' and 'my country', to 'my God'. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of 'my boots', the 'my' of ownership.

In Manx, this would be: "ny bootsyn lhiam, y moddey aym, yn sharvaant aym, my ven, my ayr, y mainshtyr aym, yn çheer aym, my Yee". Although both 'mainshtyr' and 'çheer' can be treated intimately if preferred.

/soapbox
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2012-08-02
Seriously though, I'm genuinely intrigued by this new thing I never heard of before, but hope it's not coming across as a Robinson v. the World thing.

Oh no. Bemused rather than upset, I assure you.
but I suspect if someone writes a whole book (or even an essay) in E-Prime, the reader will quickly adjust to the style and not feel like the writer emphasizes every other noun.


I agree with this; it only stands out because it's not usual, not because of something inherent in it. Still, I think it's worth considering that you could create unintended emphasis through it (especially with something short, or if for the most part you've managed to use it less noticeably) in any specific sentence.

RE stuff about Gaelic that I don't want to quote all of for no good reason: That's really interesting! It's always interesting to me how different languages end up expanding or condensing different aspects (articles, sweet jesus, articles), or categorizing things differently/drawing lines in different places (like color categories, and now that you've brought it up I suspect that there are probably other languages that have multiple words for what English uses "my" for and that it's unlikely for them to mean exactly the same things those Celtic ones do (because why would it have developed in exactly the same way?)).

Yeah! That was the quote I meant, not from an essay at all. I remember that now; those were interesting reading.
Dan H at 23:50 on 2012-08-02
No, here I disagree with you Dan - at least, I don't think it *necessarily* produces worse writing ... Lots of writers of fiction and poetry like to challenge themselves with similarly arbitrary conventions and though I haven't particularly sought out examples, I get the impression that at least some of them prove successful. Looked at through that lens, E-Prime strikes me as less restrictive than a sonnet or haiku, or writing an entire novel without one using the letter "e" (which I think somebody has done).


Perhaps I'm misreading wikipedia, but as I understand it that very much *is not* what E-Prime is. E-Prime is proposed as a *general improvement* to written English. It isn't designed as an arbitrary writing exercise, it is suggested as a real solution to a perceived flaw in the English language.

This, I hope none of us disagree, is *screamingly insane*.

The claim made by E-Prime advocates is explicitly *not* that E-Prime is an interesting writing exercise, like trying to write a palindromic story or a novel with no es in it. Their claim is that writing in e-prime is *necessarily better* than writing in standard English.

To me, your post implies that a writer committed to the challenge of writing in E-Prime who wanted to convey the same meaning as the sentences you cite would have no other choice but to remove all forms the verb "to be" and then stuff whatever convoluted phrases necessary into the sentence they found necessary to avoid use of "to be" *while retaining the essential sentence structure*. In reality, I think our hypothetical writer would more likely *rewrite the whole phrase* so as to render use of "to be" unnecessary, if not superfluous.


I freely admit that a lot of my examples were deliberately glib, or deliberately constructed in an unwieldy way, but they were also honest attempts to preserve as much of the original meaning as possible.

To take a concrete example, the Wikipedia article "translates" the opening of Alice in Wonderland from:


Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'


To


Alice had just begun to tire of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister read, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what use has a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'


This includes only three changes. One of them changes the meaning of the first sentence (changing "was beginning to" to "had just begun to" - different phrases, different meanings), one actually converts a verb into *completely the wrong tense* (the "book her sister was reading" to "the book her sister read") and the third just replaces a common, well understood phrase ("what is the use of") with a highly nonstandard one ("what use has").

Even more ludicrous is the translation of "to be or not to be/that is the question" into "to live or to die/I ask myself this". The E-Prime version of the line has, at best, a tiny subset of the original meaning of the line.

True, use of E-Prime would lose us many phrases in the English language which we consider beautiful or iconic (one reason for my ambivalence toward use of E-Prime), but I think the language contains enough versatility that it would not automatically doom us to communication through tortured prose.


You say that, but I notice that you've made some effort to avoid using forms of "to be" in this post, and you've wound up being forced into some rather clunky constructions ("contains enough versatility" rather than "is versatile enough" for example, "prove successful" rather than "are successful" and so on) and that you *also* missed one with "the other objections to 'bad writing' I've seen in this article have been (alleged) violations...". Either way I think you actually have impeded your ability to communicate clearly by adopting an arbitrary restriction when there was no need to do so.

So I suppose you've successfully proven that writing in E-Prime might sometimes, if you choose your subjects carefully, sound *only slightly worse* than writing in standard English, but since E-Prime is supposed to be *better* than standard English that isn't really much of a point in its favour.
Oh, yeah, but just because the origin/some people's rationale for it is dubious doesn't mean you can't get something out of it. The bits about it being allegedly used in psychotherapy are interesting but seem sort of fuzzy and dubious (especially when following the link to "Neuro-linguistic programming" and finding the intro full of "lack of empirical evidence" and "discredited" and so on).
Dan H at 12:39 on 2012-08-03
Oh, yeah, but just because the origin/some people's rationale for it is dubious
doesn't mean you can't get something out of it.


True, and I don't dispute the rights of individual people to write however the damned hell they want, or to adopt peculiar writing styles as a personal exercise, as long as they know what they're doing.

But the advocates of e-prime make several empirical claims about it, all of them false. They claim writing in e-prime improves clarity, and it does not. They claim that writing in e-prime makes people write more honestly and prevents them from presenting opinion as fact, and it does not.

Again, this wouldn't bother me if its advocates proposed it as a simple writing exercise, but they clearly feel that it should go further. The professor who invented the system actively imposed it on his students (wikipedia cites the rather awful example of his telling a student to say that they "feel depressed" rather than that they "are depressed"). The use in psychotherapy worries me even more, because there it has the potential to do genuine harm. I know from rather unpleasant experience that people often make people with depression feel personally responsible for their condition, and telling somebody that they'd feel better if only they would use your pet language variant strikes me as a very good way to do lasting psychological harm.

People have every right to express themselves however the hell they want. They do not have the right to enforce their chosen method of self-expression on other people, even on their own students. They certainly do not have the right to have their chosen method of self-expression *taken seriously as medicine*.

As a writing exercise, E-Prime holds some limited value but ultimately falls between stools. It restricts your style just enough to prove annoying, but not enough to pose a genuine challenge. It requires you to find a few synonyms for a few words, to avoid continuous tenses, and to take a little care with how you attribute adjectives (most commonly, one simply replaces "be" with "prove"), and little else.

As general writing advice E-Prime has all of the drawbacks of all of the other stupid bits of writing advice you get on the internet, only moreso. It contains within it half of the stupid non-rules that I mention in the article above (including, with some faintly obsecure exceptions, the absurd proscription against the passive voice), and also rules out several quite useful verb tenses.

E-Prime does not render writing unintelligible, but it does produce a stuffy, roundabout style of writing which includes a number of peculiar archaisms. I think it particularly ironic that, given its alleged function of improving clarity, precision, and honesty, E-Prime actually gives rise to a particularly obfuscatory prose style (it comes as no surprise to me that Robert Anton Wilson wrote at least one of the texts cited on wikipedia). Far from having its stated effect of making it "more difficult to hide assumptions in statements", E-Prime postively *requires* and *encourages* it.

To take an example from the article Melanie quoted, because E-Prime disallows constructions like "the taxpayer is angry" and constructions like "the taxpayer expresses anger" just sound stupid, we are left with the *much worse* option of simply talking about "the anger of the taxpayer". By disallowing bald assertions of the form "x is y" but freely permitting talk about the yness of x, E-Prime positively encourages the use of presupposition and question-begging. If I tell my political opponent that "the taxpayers are angry" about their proposed welfare reforms, they will very likely dispute my assertion. If I tell them that their proposed welfare reforms "continue to ignore the anger of the taxpayer" they will have to accept the existence of this alleged anger (despite my utter lack of evidence) and focus their reply on the question of whether they ignore it.

Again, I do not dispute that some people might find E-Prime useful as a writing excercise (although I personally do not), but its proponents do not propose it as a writing exercise, they propose it as a solution to a percieved problem in the English language. A problem which no only does not exist, but which would not be solved by E-Prime (and would, in fact, probably be greatly worsened by it) if it did.

It doesn't help that the philosophy behind E-Prime feels like the invention of a stoned sixteen-year-old. The entire rationale for the system boils down to: "but, like, how can we say what something really, like *is*, man. Like we say the sky *is* blue but is that, like, what the sky really *is*."

I understand that some people might find value in it, but I would urge those people to seek equivalent value elsewhere, because E-Prime *absolutely fails* to do any of the things it says it does.

In conclusion, I make the following statement as an assertion of absolute fact: E-Prime sucks.
Arthur B at 13:04 on 2012-08-03
@Dan:
I know from rather unpleasant experience that people often make people with depression feel personally responsible for their condition, and telling somebody that they'd feel better if only they would use your pet language variant strikes me as a very good way to do lasting psychological harm.

100% this. I can see how encouraging people to avoid talking about themselves in a particular way may help in the context of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which as I understand it is based on training people to recognise when their brain is taking them down an unhelpful or unhealthy part and nip that shit in the bud before it gets far.

But even then CBT doesn't necessarily work for every case, and (again, this is my understanding only) the emphasis on CBT is on helping people understand how their thought processes work and how they can recognise and shut down a feedback cycle before it gets too far, not on changing the way you talk. And in particular, E-Prime doesn't actually offer the solution its proponents claim it does. I don't think it necessarily helps that much to encourage someone to switch from saying "I am worthless" to "I lack worth" because ultimately you're not addressing the actual problem, which is that the person considers themselves worthless.

(it comes as no surprise to me that Robert Anton Wilson wrote at least one of the texts cited on wikipedia)

On top of that, it's one of his completely awful "if you harness the power of positive thinking enough nothing bad will ever happen to you because QUANTUM MECHANICS" books.

I understand that some people might find value in it, but I would urge those people to seek equivalent value elsewhere, because E-Prime *absolutely fails* to do any of the things it says it does.

Pretty much this. If you're going to do an eccentric writing exercise as a challenge then it's not as though such exercises are scarce and there must be plenty which don't have this baggage of quackery. Advocating E-Prime as a writing exercise isn't the same thing as advocating the quackery, but leaving the quackery uncommented-on wouldn't be ethical.

@Melanie:
The bits about it being allegedly used in psychotherapy are interesting but seem sort of fuzzy and dubious (especially when following the link to "Neuro-linguistic programming" and finding the intro full of "lack of empirical evidence" and "discredited" and so on).

Fun fact: NLP is the basis for a wide range of PUA stuff. Like, half their bullshit Scientology for rapists schtick is based off it.
Andy G at 13:15 on 2012-08-03
On the point of other languages without the verb "to be": I guess that's interesting but somewhat irrelevant to English, because other languages have different resources to express the same thing (the fact that Chinese doesn't have tenses isn't a good reason to avoid using tenses in English!). I also suspect it's possibly more likely that there are languages which don't use a verb (or don't use the same verb) for some of the functions of "to be" in English, than that there is a language which doesn't use a verb for *any* of them. English uses "to be" for:

* Continuous tense
* Passive
* Existential statements: "There is an X" (i.e. X exists)
* Predication statements: "X is red" (X has property X)
* Identity statements: "X is Y" (X is the same thing as Y - Superman is Clark Kent, etc.)

I know that even German, which is very similar to English, doesn't use "to be" for the first three. I can imagine a language using different verbs the last two (for prepositional predication statements, I guess lots of languages use case rather than verbs). I'm not sure I'd want to say such a language didn't have a verb "to be" though.

Also, on a separate note, I don't think the vagueness of some phrases such as "The taxpayer" or "They" is necessarily a problem. Sometimes, what you need is a vague or indeterminate phrase. It's another symptom of the problem of decreasing expressivity.
Yeah, I think if you're the kind of coward who wants to attribute your useless opinions to some vaguely-defined monolith like "the taxpayer," you're going to do it whether or not some insane person tries to stop you by amputating limbs off the English language.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2012-08-03
From the tone of your most recent comment, Dan, I get the impression you find the arguments and behaviors of the advocates of E-Prime personally upsetting. I apologize for instigating such distress.

I introduced the subject of E-Prime in basically the context Melanie suggests: an interesting curiosity, and not an attempt to push its' creators' philosophical paradigm. In that context I still take issue with some of your arguments, but if you'd prefer to terminate the discussion there I'll back off.
Dan H at 15:06 on 2012-08-03
@Andy G

I can imagine a language using different verbs the last two (for prepositional predication statements, I guess lots of languages use case rather than verbs). I'm not sure I'd want to say such a language didn't have a verb "to be" though.


For what it's worth, Mandarin tends to use "to have" for existence statements and only uses "to be" for some predication statements.

I think part of the pathetic juvenile pseudophilosophy behind E-Prime is the idea that it is a *problem* that English uses the same word to express all of these concepts, which is just a very large-scale version of the usual "avoid potential ambiguity" bullshit that's used to justify about 56% of stupid writing advice.
Dan H at 15:18 on 2012-08-03
From the tone of your most recent comment, Dan, I get the impression you find the arguments and behaviors of the advocates of E-Prime personally upsetting. I apologize for instigating such distress.


Dude, seriously not a problem - part of the reason my most recent comment was so aggressively phrased was that I wanted to point out that it is perfectly possible to use E-Prime to communicate in ways which E-Prime is supposed to make more difficult or impossible. The reason I end with "E-Prime sucks" is as yet another example of a way in which you can make an absolute, stated-as-fact assertion without using a "be" verb.

I *do* find a lot of the things I have read about E-Prime advocates deeply troubling. Any English or Linguistics professor who encourages his students to curtail the way they express themselves not as an exercise but as a *matter of course* is harming their students' ability to express themselves, and that offends me on a professional level. Anybody who tries to get their *utterly unsupported* psycholinguistic theory used to treat real patients with real mental health problems is putting real people in real danger in service of their own personal vanity.

As a writing exercise I just find it ... dull. Andy lays out quite clearly the different things we use the verb "to be" for in English. Neither I, nor any other skilled user of the language, gets confused between them.
Arthur B at 15:20 on 2012-08-03
Yeah, it does seem to be the result of someone getting super mad that a statement could potentially be misleading if you ignore (or deliberately divorce it from) its original context and tone, and imagining that you can some how construct a language which is resilient to such distortions.
Dan H at 15:26 on 2012-08-03
See also: Lojban.
Robinson L at 18:15 on 2012-08-03
Dan: I *do* find a lot of the things I have read about E-Prime advocates deeply troubling.

Fair enough, Dan. I never felt greatly attached to the underlying logic of E-Prime anyway, and now it seems more and more likely that the underlying logic I had in mind had nothing to do with E-Prime and actually stemmed from one or two completely different points I picked up elsewhere.

I completely agree that in attempting to impose E-Prime its advocates have acted reprehensibly, and I find an attempt to push it as a psychiatric cure particularly distressing. I also consider it completely bunk as a stratagem to produce "good writing" (or, at least, to avoid "bad writing.") I further concur that it completely fails to fix the problems its supporters attribute to it.

However, I continue to part ways with you as to the uselessness of E-Prime as a writing exercise. In that context, you've dismissed it as "dull" and insisted that it inevitably produces worse writing than regular English, and that it fails to present a significant challenge to someone wishing to stretch their writing muscles. I'll go along with that third point with the following caveat: assuming the writer in question doesn't mind hamfisted wording or somewhat mangled sentences (e.g. they're writing a comment on an internet post and going for speed over finesse); for the others, I still don't find either your arguments or your backing evidence strongly convincing. If you'd care to continue *that* discussion you may consider me at your service. (Personally, I've grown somewhat tired of this conversation, but if you wish to pursue it further I'll put myself at your disposal.)
Wikipedia: For example, the sentence "The coat is red" has no observer, the sentence "We see the coat as red" (where "we" indicates observers) appears more specific in context as regards light waves and colour as determined by modern science, that is, colour results from a reaction in the human brain.


I thought the bits about color were especially strange. Perception of color is one thing, but color itself is a measurable physical property of an object (or of light, if you want to look at it a different way): how it reacts to various wavelengths of light and/or how it emits light, if at all. What wavelengths it absorbs, reflects, etc. Going on about "ahhhh but is the coat really red if there's nobody to see it" is like wondering if gravity stops when we're not looking.

I'd go further and say that sentences like "We see the coat as red" really only belong in discussions about color perception specifically, not when you're just trying to convey something's appearance. I.e. we see the coat as red but it is actually white with a red light shining on it, we see the coat as red because of its surroundings but it's really orange, we see the coat as red because the orange and violet fibers its made of sort of blur together in our minds, etc. There are good reasons to use a construction like that, but "no explicit observer, let's pop one in" isn't a good reason.

On top of that, it's one of his completely awful "if you harness the power of positive thinking enough nothing bad will ever happen to you because QUANTUM MECHANICS" books.


What? Is that like "The Secret"?

Yeah, it does seem to be the result of someone getting super mad that a statement could potentially be misleading if you ignore (or deliberately divorce it from) its original context and tone, and imagining that you can some how construct a language which is resilient to such distortions.


To be fair, people DO often quote things out of context and distort the original meaning. I can understand looking at a language and all its annoying flaws (although I don't know if that, specifically, is a flaw in the language) and wanting to just... fix them. Or make something better to use instead. Like seeing a bug and wanting to fix it, except more doomed.
Arthur B at 23:54 on 2012-08-03
What? Is that like "The Secret"?

It's more detailed than that because it's RAW and his usual function is to obfuscate and overcomplicate the fuck out of everything he writes about, even though if you read more than two or three of his books it's clear he actually has a very limited and very simple set of ideas he constantly riffs on.

But yeah, it's basically The Secret.
Dan H at 01:33 on 2012-08-04
I still don't find either your arguments or your backing evidence strongly convincing.


Fair enough, let's give this another go.

You attribute three key points to my argument - I'm not sure I entirely agree with that characterization, but it's as good a point as any to start from. From the top then:

1: E-Prime, as a writing exercise, is dull. Put simply, I don't see any difference between "E-Prime" and all of the other nonsensical prescriptivist writing advice you find on the internet. I don't consider "avoid using forms of the verb to be" an interesting writing exercise any more than I consider "avoid the passive voice" or "don't use singular-referring 'they'" an interesting writing exercise. Writing in E-Prime is basically just a proofreading job, you avoid be-verbs as much as possible, then go through and take out the ones that crept in. This is particularly true since while be-verbs are common, they're only used in a small number of ways, and each use has a simple workaround which, once found, can be applied trivially.

This point overlaps very strongly with points two and three, so I shall not develop it further here.

2: E-Prime inevitably produces worse writing than conventional English. This is necessarily true, because E-Prime is a *subset* of conventional English. In any given situation, the clearest, most concise, and most elegant way of expressing a particular idea may or may not involve using a form of the verb "to be". If it does involve using a form of the verb "to be" then it is inadmissible in E-Prime, but perfectly acceptable in conventional English. If it does not involve a form of the verb "to be" then it is perfectly acceptable in E-Prime and *still* perfectly acceptable in conventional English.

Unless you believe, and you claim you do not, that E-Prime is inherently superior in all circumstances then you must accept that there are circumstances under which it is more suitable to use constructions which are not acceptable under E-Prime but which are acceptable in conventional English. In this case conventional English is clearly and necessarily superior.

It is important to remember that, much like "avoiding the passive voice" the choice here is not between never using a particular construction and always using it, but between using a construction only when it is appropriate, and not using a construction *even* when it is appropriate. The choice is not between never using forms of the verb "to be" and using them at every opportunity, but between never using them and using them *when it is natural and appropriate to do so*.

For example, I believe that I Capture the Castle opens with the line "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." This sentence contains no "be" verbs whatsoever, but it is still written in perfectly good standard English, and nobody is suggesting that it has to be rewritten into the form "As I am writing this I am sitting in the kitchen sink" because that would clearly be a *worse* line. But it would be worse because the surprising image of the narrator sitting in the kitchen sink is no longer conveyed quickly and sharply with as little fuss or fanfare as possible. The presence or absence of "be-verbs" is beside the point.

By contrast, "It was a bright, cold morning in April, the clocks were striking thirteen" would suffer considerably from being rephrased as "the clocks struck thirteen on a bright, cold morning in April". It suffers here not particularly because the verb "to be" is a necessary part of the sentence, but because the "it was ... the clocks were ..." construction presents the reader with the familiar image first (a bright, cold morning in April) and then pulls them sharply out of that with a single unfamiliar detail (the clocks striking thirteen).

The limitation of E-Prime is not that it removes the verb "to be" from your vocabulary, the limitation is that it removes entire ways of structuring sentences which, in standard English, involve forms of the verb "to be". It's like a demo version of the English language. It doesn't make writing more challenging, it just disables a number of features which improve the power and flexibility of the language.

I'd also point out that I'm really not sure why you're objecting to the idea that writing in E-Prime is worse than writing in standard English if you're trying to defend E-Prime purely on its strengths as a writing exercise. You wouldn't *expect* writing you produce as part of an exercise to be as good as writing you do when you're using everything at your disposal (or at least, you certainly *hope* it wouldn't be). Dog Sees Ada is, by any reasonable measure, an absolutely terrible short story.

3: E-Prime sucks as a writing exercise. You say that you will accept this with the caveat that it only sucks "assuming the writer in question doesn't mind hamfisted wording or somewhat mangled sentences". I disagree for two reasons.

My first point of contention is, I think, the simplest. You seem to be arguing that E-Prime can be a challenging writing exercise if you challenge yourself not merely to write in it, but to write well. The problem here is that at that point your only real challenge is the challenge of writing well. I assume that you are not claiming to be so skilled a prose stylist that the only way you can make writing well a challenge is to try to do it under arbitrary restrictions. Assuming you aren't, you don't need E-Prime to "stretch your writing muscles" you just need to try to write *better*.

The second point extends somewhat from the first. People have a lot of wrongheaded ideas about "exercise". In particular, people tend to assume that all exercise is good exercise, and that harder exercises necessarily make you better than easy exercises. This is flatly untrue. Any fitness instructor will tell you that a badly chosen or badly designed exercise can and will do more harm than good.

A good exercise trains you to do something specific. Learning your multiplication tables trains you to recall the products of simple pairs of numbers (it does not, contrary to popular belief, teach you anything at all about mathematics). Martial arts drills improve your ability to perform specific techniques and forms. Writing sonnets improves your understanding of the rhythms and sounds of words in the language (and also, since the sonnet is a recognized poetic form, produces actual poetic works which may have merit in their own right). Writing lipograms helps build vocabulary.

By contrast a badly designed exercise will have a detrimental effect. Lifting weights with poor technique can cause real physical injury. Sloppy drills can instil fighters with bad habits. Practicing using synonyms for "said" can lead to people writing terrible dialogue. Very often bad exercises are a consequence of the unthinking assumption that "harder" is always "better". So you try to lift more weights, and you tear a muscle. You try to practice your techniques faster, and so you practice bad form. You think saying "said" is too easy, so you learn to write in a weird, unnatural style.

Practicing writing in E-Prime only teaches you bad habits. It is not constrained enough that it requires constant attention to style, vocabulary, or metre. The bulk of writing in E-Prime is simply *indistinguishable* from writing in standard English. When it is not indistinguishable, all you learn from writing in E-Prime is an aversion to perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable forms of expression.

Writing under this kind of arbitrary restriction is only really useful for one reason: it can force you to use constructions that you would not otherwise use, which will in the end make your work more flexible. This is the advantage of the old "avoid the letter e" exercise. You are very likely to use words and structures which you would otherwise never have thought to use, simply because you are trying to avoid the letter "e".

E-Prime cannot claim this benefit. All it requires you to do is to replace one common construction with a different, equally common, and less well chosen construction.

As Andy points out, there are basically five things we use the verb "to be" to express in English (existence, predication, identity, the passive, and continuous tenses). No speaker of English needs to be explicitly trained to use alternatives to these constructions, we all do it all the time.

We only use "to be" to express existence when existence is the only thing we wish to express. If I want to tell you about the really good Chinese restaurant by the bus station in Oxford I will say: "there is a really good Chinese restaurant by the bus station in Oxford." If I want to tell you that I often go to the Chinese restaurant that is by the bus station, I will say "I often go to the Chinese restaurant by the bus station." It is natural for me to use the "be" verb in the first instance and not in the second. If I often found myself saying things like "I often go to the Chinese restaurant which is next to to the bus station which is in Oxford" then I might need a writing exercise to train myself to stop using superfluous be-verbs, but I don't talk like that and neither, I suspect, do you.

Then there's predication. The sky is blue. Water is wet. The cat is black. Again, I only use be-form verbs for predication if the predication is all I wish to communicate. If I am mentioning something in a broader context, I will simply use the adjective (the blue sky, the black cat), and if I actively *wish* to be more specific I may use a possession-form description (the cat has black fur, the sky has a blue tint) or perception-form (the water feels wet, the sky appears blue). Again, these are all constructions which any competent user of English needs no training to use. Again, if people regularly said things like "the cat, which was black, sat on the mat, which was blue" then there might be some value in a writing exercise which trained you to just say "the black cat sat on the blue mat" but again, people *do not write like that*.

Expressions of absolute identity pretty much require a be-form verb, but are rare enough that again, I don't see the point in training yourself not to use them.

The passive voice, while widely derided, is a useful construction but, once again, no competent English speaker needs to practice *not* using. Only about 10% of verb uses tend to be passives anyway. Unless you're regularly writing sentences like "this morning my bed was got out of, the stairs were gone down, and my breakfast was made and eaten by me" you don't need a writing exercise to help you avoid the passive voice.

Finally we have continuous tenses. Again, there's one way of doing this, which is to use a "be + infinitive" construction. You can certainly *avoid* using continuous tenses but again, it isn't like this is something a competent user of the language has to practice. Again, I don't see the point in explicitly training yourself to avoid doing something you will only rarely do anyway.

So that, in short, is why I think E-Prime is worthless as a writing exercise. All it does is train you not to do at all things which a competent user of the language already does only when appropriate.
Dan H at 01:48 on 2012-08-04
I'd go further and say that sentences like "We see the coat as red" really only belong in discussions about color perception specifically, not when you're just trying to convey something's appearance.


This is more or less what makes me put E-Prime squarely in the "stoned sixteen-year-old" box. There are only two possible objections to the phrase "the coat is red":

1. The coat is not really red, but only appears red to an observer.

2. The coat is not *numerically identical* with the colour red.

Both of these objections can be described by some observers as fucking stupid.

The depressing thing is that there are people out there who *really do* believe that saying "the coat appears red" rather than "the coat is red" constitutes clarity and precision rather than needless pedantry.

And once again, I would highlight the absurdity of objecting to "the coat is red" but not objecting to "the red coat". If it is correct that we should only say "the coat appears red" to clarify that redness is not an inherent property of the coat (despite the fact that you can coherently argue that it, well, is) then we must also say "the coat which appears red" instead of "the red coat".

Gah! This whole thing is like being stuck in a lift with a teenager who has just discovered the concept of relativism.
Arthur B at 02:10 on 2012-08-04
What gets me about the coat thing is the idea that "the coat is red" is somehow a problem because the sentence doesn't imply an observer. This is mad; I can think of stacks of contexts (technical documents, legal documents, etc.) where positing an imaginary observer is outright stupid.
This is mad; I can think of stacks of contexts (technical documents, legal documents, etc.) where positing an imaginary observer is outright stupid.


...Consisting of a screw fitted fairly tightly inside of a pipe, with the entire thing at an angle and the lower end in the water. As the screw turns, the water is carried up the pipe and is eventually poured out the top.

Bob was there, too.
Michal at 02:27 on 2012-08-04
There's enough material here in the comments on E-Prime to make three Ferretbrain articles.

See also: Lojban.

One does not speak of Lojban. One does not even speak Lojban.
Sunnyskywalker at 03:35 on 2012-08-04
I'm currently very grateful that George Lucas never tried to write in E-Prime. Can you imagine his list of alternate lines for ESB?

"Luke, I have the attribute of paternity with respect to you."
"Luke, I impregnated your mother nine months before your birth."
"Luke, I sired you."
"Luke, we share chromosomes."
"Luke, some might say that I have failed in my fatherly duties towards you."
"Luke, look at the results of this paternity test."
"Luke, you owe me twenty years of Father's Day cards."
"Luke, I have a son: you!"

Maybe if I rewatch the movies with this in mind, the dialog will sound brilliant.

The only context I could see it being a useful exercise is as part of a checklist for something you've already written. "Did I put in too many 'thats' again in an awkward-sounding way? Are there a bunch of 'to be' verbs right in a row that don't all need to be there, or does it sound okay anyway? This sentence sounds boring for some reason... let me try restructuring it according to several arbitrary criteria - removing 'to be' being one - and see if that helps me figure out what's wrong and what sounds better, because I've got nothing so far."
"Luke, the acorn occasionally does fall rather far from the tree."
"Luke, if you had a vulva, I would call you my daughter."
Dan H at 11:43 on 2012-08-04
There is, of course, at least one line in Star Wars that is written in flawless E-Prime. That line being:

"Nooooooooo!"

It even works in translation: "Do not waaaaaaant!"

The only context I could see it being a useful exercise is as part of a checklist for something you've already written.


Even then, I'd suggest that it's not only useless, but worse than useless. If the problem is a lot of repetition of the same word, then ruthlessly pruning out all of the forms of the verb to be isn't just overkill, it's *misdirected* overkill. You're not just using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you're swinging a sledgehammer *at your own legs* to crack a nut.

Applying arbitrary writing rules to bland writing is a worse than useless. All you succeed in doing is turning bland writing into bland writing that conforms with somebody else's idea of good writing. Worse, you're probably changing something that just plain doesn't need to be changed. The vast majority of sentences in the vast majority of texts are purely functional. There's no point freaking out because you've just written something like: "that is the only good thing that has ever come of it" or "It was my birthday" or "she was laid upon her bed". Boring sentences pass by quickly and don't get in the way of comprehension. By contrast, long passages consisting entirely of exciting sentences full of long words are often deathly dull.

Which brings me rather neatly back to my conclusion from the original article: it is good to try to write *better* but better writing is not located at the level of individual words.
Gah! This whole thing is like being stuck in a lift with a teenager who has just discovered the concept of relativism.


My eighth-grade English teacher actually did take off points on essays every time you used "to be" verbs. I honestly don't know if she was deliberately fucking with us to amuse herself or if she actually thought this was a good idea.
James D at 18:14 on 2012-08-04
Even then, I'd suggest that it's not only useless, but worse than useless. If the problem is a lot of repetition of the same word, then ruthlessly pruning out all of the forms of the verb to be isn't just overkill, it's *misdirected* overkill.



I think this whole E Prime thing is another instance of potentially sensible advice taken to an absurd extreme. Rather than having to to with over-repetition, I think it has to do with "to be" being weak in many contexts, most often descriptive ones. To use your "the coat is red" example - I think "Dan's coat was red" is definitely not as good as "Dan wore a red coat," assuming we're talking about a coat Dan has on at the time. Or to use the example from the article, "it was raining torrents" vs. "the rain fell in torrents." Even though I definitely think the latter iterations of the two examples are better, that's obviously a stylistic choice that might vary between readers, and not even a particularly important one.

And regardless of which you prefer, it's utterly absurd to claim that the verb "to be" should never be used at all, because there are lots of times you can't really get around it at all. I'm trying to think of a good a way to designate someone's profession without it, at least when there isn't a verb to go with the noun - "Dan taught physics for a living," OK, but "Dan carpented for a living" or "Dan made things out of wood for a living" are obviously silly. There are tons of other instances it would be easy to think of.

A more sensible way to re-work E Prime would be: "be conscious of your use of 'to be', as it can be weak in some contexts (especially descriptive ones), but don't worry about it too much."
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2012-08-04
Dan: You attribute three key points to my argument - I'm not sure I entirely agree with that characterization

Sorry about that; I admit I didn't think it out all beforehand. I just wanted to capture the flavor of the arguments which I disagreed with, and those three points came most readily to hand.

As for the rest, well, now at least I feel I have a much better handle on your dismissal of E-Prime as a writing exercise. I guess I still feel that as a writer (in this case defined as someone who likes to do a lot of writing, not necessarily someone who has published their writing anywhere) I can find value in discovering ways to communicate *as effectively* under certain arbitrary linguistic constrictions as I would without those constrictions. I don't feel sure whether I find your arguments that E-Prime has no usefulness in that context (or just has no value over other sorts of arbitrary constrictions) convincing. I think I shall have to go away and think the matter over for a while to figure that out.

James: I'm trying to think of a good a way to designate someone's profession without it, at least when there isn't a verb to go with the noun - "Dan taught physics for a living," OK, but "Dan carpented for a living" or "Dan made things out of wood for a living" are obviously silly.

No meaning to challenge your point at all and seeking only to indulge my pedantic streak, I would offer "Dan worked as a carpenter" as a solution to that particular construction.
Sunnyskywalker at 00:09 on 2012-08-05
RE: Dan

Oh, I think it would definitely only be useful in very limited contexts. Like if you actually are a person who has an odd writing tic and overuses "to be" verbs along with "very" and "somehow," it would be one thing you'd run through specifically looking for. Or if the writing sounds flat somehow but you can't put your finger on why, you'd run through trying these variants along with some other random ones - and maybe you would find one you liked, or maybe you wouldn't but the change would help you figure out what the real problem was and what changes you should really make (which may or may not include be-verbs). Like, sometimes if you're trying to figure out why a picture doesn't look quite right over the piano you might try putting a flower vase with it or holding it up in different places, and maybe that will work but maybe instead it will help you figure out that the real problem is that you need to move the sofa and paint the wall blue. Or, er, scrap the whole paragraph because you've figured out you're making the wrong point or making it in the wrong place or something. Holding the picture up different places/rewriting in E-Prime just helped you figure that out, and wasn't in itself the solution as such.

Or maybe most people don't figure out they need to paint the wall blue by moving smaller stuff around :D

Anyway, as I said, only useful occasionally, and probably when you're stuck and just need to start shaking things up as a diagnostic measure.
James D at 03:16 on 2012-08-05
No meaning to challenge your point at all and seeking only to indulge my pedantic streak, I would offer "Dan worked as a carpenter" as a solution to that particular construction.

Ah, good one. Still, that's obviously far clunkier than "Dan was a carpenter," unless you want to be more specific: "Dan worked as a carpenter on weekends, and built many elaborate sex toys."
Dan H at 14:43 on 2012-08-06
Rather than having to to with over-repetition, I think it has to do with "to be" being weak in many contexts, most often descriptive ones.


That's the thing, I think that this is mostly untrue. More specifically, I think that people only consider "to be" to be "weak" because they've been *taught* that it's "weak." As fishinginthemud points out, real teacher in real schools really do mark students down for using "be verbs" just *on spec*.

"Dan's shirt was red" isn't "weaker" than "Dan wore a red shirt" (I'm not even sure what "weak" means in this context), it just puts the emphasis in a different place. One emphasizes the shirt, the other emphasizes me, neither is "stronger" or "weaker" than the other.

This, again, is why I am so very, very wary of this kind of advice. Whether it is better to write "the rain fell in torrents" or "it was raining torrents" or "it rained" or "the rain fell torrentially" or "it was raining" depends entirely on what you are trying to express.

A more sensible way to re-work E Prime would be: "be conscious of your use of 'to be', as it can be weak in some contexts (especially descriptive ones), but don't worry about it too much."


Except *even that* is based on a myth.

Again, we come back to the fact that "It was a bright, cold morning in April, the clocks were striking thirteen" would not be "stronger" if it was rephrased as "The clocks struck thirteen on a bright, cold morning in April."

Whether it is better to describe somebody's shirt, for example, using a "Dan's shirt was X" construction or a "Dan wore an X shirt" construction depends not on how "strong" you want the description to be, but on whether you want to describe the shirt, or the fact that I was wearing it.

If I have just shown up and you want to describe what I am wearing, then yes "Dan wore a red shirt" is the best way to put it, because you're describing *me* so it's sensible for me to be the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, if you want to describe how I look after I've had a fight with a werewolf, then you might say "Dan's shirt was torn" because here it's the *fact that the shirt is torn* that matters (this being the consequence of my fight with the werewolf) and writing "Dan wore a torn shirt" would be a silly thing to write, because it would sound like I had *chosen to put on* a torn shirt, rather than my shirt becoming torn as a consequence of the fight.

This is pretty much my problem with this kind of writing advice. In reality, competent users of a language choose the right way to express what they want to express *pretty much all of the time*. Even very mild warnings against individual words or constructions are counter-productive.
James D at 15:36 on 2012-08-06
That's the thing, I think that this is mostly untrue. More specifically, I think that people only consider "to be" to be "weak" because they've been *taught* that it's "weak." As fishinginthemud points out, real teacher in real schools really do mark students down for using "be verbs" just *on spec*.

Whoa, slow down there, chief. I was never taught that in school, and in fact never took any sort of creative writing class. This is a conclusion I came to completely on my own. Please don't try to read too deeply into my motives here. I agree it's ridiculous to mark students down for using 'to be', but in some contexts using something other than "to be" is a stylistic choice I happen to think improves a text.

"Dan's shirt was red" isn't "weaker" than "Dan wore a red shirt" (I'm not even sure what "weak" means in this context), it just puts the emphasis in a different place. One emphasizes the shirt, the other emphasizes me, neither is "stronger" or "weaker" than the other.

It's weak in the sense that simply being is less active than wearing. To me it'd be similar to writing in the passive voice rather than the active - nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it might make the text seem weaker if you overused the passive voice.

Except *even that* is based on a myth.

Again, we come back to the fact that "It was a bright, cold morning in April, the clocks were striking thirteen" would not be "stronger" if it was rephrased as "The clocks struck thirteen on a bright, cold morning in April."

See, now it seems you're falling into the opposite trap and saying E Prime is *never* better. I *genuinely think* the latter example is superior (though I'd rework it a bit to flow better). I admit that's a personal stylistic choice, but it's not a "myth", either.

RE: werewolf shirt

Sure, I agree with your use of to be in that context. As I said, I don't think a more active verb is always better. I even pointed out some examples where "to be" was clearly the superior choice.

Even very mild warnings against individual words or constructions are counter-productive.

Well I just don't agree with that at all. All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it's useful in that it makes people consciously consider word choices they might not have otherwise. I enjoy reading all sorts of writing advice, even if I don't agree with 90% of it. The point to be remembered is that no "rules" in writing are ever universal.
It seems like useful writing advice needs to be as specific as possible. When the teacher returns your essay dripping with red ink, you learn that your phrasing was ambiguous here and your word choice was questionable there, and you should keep those things in mind for future essays. It doesn't mean you should overgeneralize to the level of "don't use be verbs when you can help it" in order to protect yourself from future writing fail. That's not going to work.
Arthur B at 16:45 on 2012-08-06
See, now it seems you're falling into the opposite trap and saying E Prime is *never* better. I *genuinely think* the latter example is superior (though I'd rework it a bit to flow better). I admit that's a personal stylistic choice, but it's not a "myth", either.

The thing is that whilst you can make this statement, maybe, about individual sentences, choosing to write a specific sentence without "to be" isn't writing in E-Prime and pointing out specific sentences which could be improved by removing "to be" isn't a defence of E-Prime. The point of E-Prime is not to occasionally experiment with maybe excising a few "to be" statements from you're writing, it's to ruthlessly excise them altogether, preferably for the entire text you are composing.

The thing is that the longer a text you are composing, the sooner you're going to hit a situation where it is genuinely less awkward and clunky and "weak" (whatever the BLUE FLAMING SHIT that means) to use "to be" than it is to not use "to be". At which point the writing using E-Prime is proper fucked.
James D at 16:51 on 2012-08-06
I know what E Prime is. I was proposing a more reasonable variant of E Prime, because while I see where it's coming from, I think ruthlessly excising "to be" is just as silly as you folks do. I don't really see who you're arguing with here.
a more reasonable variant of E Prime

(E')'?
Dan H at 17:13 on 2012-08-06
Whoa, slow down there, chief. I was never taught that in school


You might not have been, but thousands of people were. I would be frankly *amazed* if you hadn't been exposed to the "be verbs are weak" idea *somewhere* because it's a very, very common misconception. And you observe yourself that you read a lot of writing advice.

And even if you did reach the conclusion yourself, you've still got a circular argument. Whether you have been trained, or whether you trained yourself, the only reason to consider "be verbs" to be weak is because you already believe them to be weak.

It's weak in the sense that simply being is less active than wearing.


Two things.

Firstly, you've gone from "weaker" to "less active".

Secondly, what does "less active" even mean? Why is being less active than wearing? Is being a soldier less active than wearing a hat? And even if it is less active why does it matter?

To me it'd be similar to writing in the passive voice rather than the active - nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it might make the text seem weaker if you overused the passive voice.


Again, although you may not have learned all this in school, what you're reciting here are *popular misconceptions* about how English *works*.

Obviously "overusing" *anything* is bad. Otherwise it wouldn't be overuse. But the passive voice doesn't make the text seem weaker, it makes it seem *stronger*. Churchill used the passive voice all the time ("Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" being the classic example).

The passive voice *changes emphasis*. It does not make anything "stronger" or "weaker" or "more" or "less" active. Obviously misusing the passive voice sounds *fucking weird* but it doesn't sound *weak*. "My breakfast was eaten by me" isn't less *strong* than "I ate my breakfast", it's just *odd*.

See, now it seems you're falling into the opposite trap and saying E Prime is *never* better. I *genuinely think* the latter example is superior (though I'd rework it a bit to flow better).


Why do you think it's superior, apart from the fact that it's "more active"?

Sure, I agree with your use of to be in that context. As I said, I don't think a more active verb is always better.


In which case your original example, which stated that "Dan's shirt was red" was strictly inferior to "Dan wore a red shirt" is incorrect.

This being the problem with this kind of writing rule, and this kind of way of demonstrating it. Exactly the same construction can be perfectly right in one context, perfectly wrong in another. But when you're trying to think of an example to illustrate why a particular construction is bad, you completely forget the context in which it is good.

As a result, people continue to believe in rules which are not merely "not universal" but actively non-existent.

Well I just don't agree with that at all. All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it's useful in that it makes people consciously consider word choices they might not have otherwise.


Why is that a good thing?

Or to put it another way, why is it useful to encourage people to consider their word choice by teaching them things which are factually incorrect, rather than by simply advising them to consider their word choice?

The point to be remembered is that no "rules" in writing are ever universal.


No rules are universal, but there is a world of difference between a rule that is not universal and rule that *genuinely does not exist*.

For example, the rule that all sentences should include a verb is not universal, because in real writing people sometimes do write short sentences that violate this rule. Like this. The rule that writing in English is performed using the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet is not universal, because you can write English perfectly well in IPA, or transliterate it with mixed success into other alphabets. The rule that English contains no second-person-plural pronoun is not universal because some dialects include second-person-plural pronouns like "y'all", "youse" and "yez".

Some rules, however, *do not really exist at all*. Like the rules about split infinitives, sentence-initial conjunctions or sentence-final prepositions. Or like any other arbitrary rules we might choose to make up.

The "rule" that verbs of the form "to be" are, or can be, or have a tendency to be "weak" is not merely "not universal" it is a *non-rule*. I know that you're not saying that it is *always* better to use an "active" verb over a "passive" one, and I'm sure you understand that I am not saying it is *never* better. I am arguing that whether a verb is "active" or "passive" is as irrelevant as whether it contains an odd or even number of letters.
Arthur B at 17:14 on 2012-08-06
I know what E Prime is. I was proposing a more reasonable variant of E Prime, because while I see where it's coming from, I think ruthlessly excising "to be" is just as silly as you folks do. I don't really see who you're arguing with here.

I'm arguing that E-Prime as it's provided isn't a stylistic guideline, it's a mode of writing. What you're proposing isn't a "moderate version of E-Prime", it's a different class of thing altogether.
Dan H at 17:25 on 2012-08-06
It seems like useful writing advice needs to be as specific as possible.


I think this is probably true of advice in general (an now, a small pause to appreciate the irony of that observation).

Writing in particular is *extraordinarily* complex. There's a reason computers are so abysmal at natural-language processing, after all. Worse, our responses to language are to some extent learned, so if you spend long enough believing that a particular construction is bad you will eventually *observe* it to be bad no matter what.

For example, years ago I started picking people up on the less/fewer distinction as a jokey parody of grammar pedantry. I did not at the time, and do not now, believe there to be anything wrong with using "less" to describe a smaller number of countable objects but I spent so long picking up on it that that I'm genuinely tripped up by it.

Which serves to highlight, I think, why this kind of advice is so dangerous. You actually can train yourself to be bothered by things that are perfectly okay, which means you can wind up damaging your ability to write effectively and flexibly.
Dan H at 17:27 on 2012-08-06
(E')'?


dE/dt?
dE/da = The derivative of English with respect to awkwardness.
Dan H at 17:38 on 2012-08-06
It belatedly occurs to me that dE/dt might *genuinely* be why the called it E-Prime in the first place, because part of their philosophy seems to be this absurd idea that verbs of the form "to be" imply that things are constant and unchanging, when in reality everything is time-varying. This would explain why they object to the verb "to be" but not to the verbs "to become" or "to remain".
James D at 17:41 on 2012-08-06
Why do you think it's superior, apart from the fact that it's "more active"?

I think I might not be making my position clear enough. I have stated a number of times that this is a personal stylistic choice that I prefer. You might as well ask why someone thinks their favorite color is superior; you might get answers like "red feels warmer" or whatever, but ultimately the reasoning as to why "warmer" is necessarily better probably won't make logical sense to you, unless you agree with it. I'm not saying my taste ought to be universal.

No rules are universal, but there is a world of difference between a rule that is not universal and rule that *genuinely does not exist*.

Well now you're just being silly. If some people treat E Prime as a rule and strictly adhere to it, and when in authority impose it on others, then it clearly exists, just as a law exists if it's enforced (in a legal sense), regardless of whether or not you feel it's just. E Prime isn't the same as a grammatical rule, but then no stylistic rule is.

I am arguing that whether a verb is "active" or "passive" is as irrelevant as whether it contains an odd or even number of letters.

And as far as your own personal stylistic choices go, that's fine. I'm perfectly willing to accept that to you it's irrelevant, but to me it isn't.
It belatedly occurs to me that dE/dt might *genuinely* be why the called it E-Prime in the first place, because part of their philosophy seems to be this absurd idea that verbs of the form "to be" imply that things are constant and unchanging, when in reality everything is time-varying.

It's like the human version of ELIZA trying to give psychiatric advice.
Dan H at 18:50 on 2012-08-06
You might as well ask why someone thinks their favorite color is superior


I think this is the source of our disagreement, and it leaves me extremely confused about where you're coming from.

To stick with the colour analogy, it seems like advocates of E-Prime are saying "always wear red and never wear blue, because if you wear blue you will be eaten by crocodiles". We all agree that this is nonsense.

You then seemed to be saying something like "you should consider wearing red instead of blue, because wearing red can make you feel happier". I argued that wearing red would not necessarily make you feel happier, and that there were circumstances under which it could make you feel less happy. I went on to conclude that I thought there was no reason to believe that your personal happiness would be affected in any way by the colour of your clothes.

You now seem to be saying only that you like the colour red, or that wearing red makes *you* feel happy. Or possibly even that you like to choose to believe that people who wear red are happier than people who do not wear red, whatever other people may feel about it. This seems to be something very different from what you were saying earlier.

To bring it back to writing, this started off with you offering a specific piece of stylistic advice - avoid verbs of the form "to be" because be-verbs can be weak in some contexts. I suggested that they were not, and asked you to clarify what "weak" meant. You now seem to be saying that you are not offering advice, merely stating a preference, and one that is as arbitrary as a favourite colour.

Except this doesn't seem to fit with the earlier discussion - there are several examples above in which we managed to agree that one form or the other was clearly preferable (normally on the basis of *what was being described* rather than on criteria of activeness or passiveness). And later on in this post you deny that your preferences are arbitrary.

Well now you're just being silly. If some people treat E Prime as a rule and strictly adhere to it, and when in authority impose it on others, then it clearly exists, just as a law exists if it's enforced (in a legal sense), regardless of whether or not you feel it's just.


I think the legal analogy supports my position, rather than yours. The fact that some people act like a law exists does not cause that law to exist. Many people in England do not smoke and, when in positions of authority, seek to prevent other people from smoking. It does not follow that smoking is illegal in England.

Many people believe that it is a rule of the English language that one should not split infinitives, and they seek to enforce this rule on other people. These people are *wrong* not in the moral sense, but in the empirical sense. It has never been a rule of the English language, either of grammar, or of good style, that one should avoid splitting infinitives.

Now of course there are people, like E-Prime advocates and internet grammar-nazis who choose to speak a dialect of English which is more restricted than standard English, and who sometimes try to force other English speakers to follow the same stupid rules that they follow, but these people are *fundamentally mistaken* about the relationship between the rules they advocate and the language they speak.


And as far as your own personal stylistic choices go, that's fine. I'm perfectly willing to accept that to you it's irrelevant, but to me it isn't.


Now I'm even more confused. You start this post by observing that your preference for "active" verbs is as arbitrary and as inexplicable as a favourite colour. Now you're arguing the opposite. You seem to want it both ways, for your preferences to have both the weight of fact and the sanctity of opinion.

If your preferences are arbitrary and personal, then favouring "active" verbs over passive ones is exactly as meaningless as preferring verbs with an odd number of letters to verbs with an even number of letters. If they are not, then you do actually need to explain what you mean by an "active" verb, and explain why "active" verbs are better than "passive" ones.
James D at 20:54 on 2012-08-06
You then seemed to be saying something like "you should consider wearing red instead of blue, because wearing red can make you feel happier". I argued that wearing red would not necessarily make you feel happier, and that there were circumstances under which it could make you feel less happy. I went on to conclude that I thought there was no reason to believe that your personal happiness would be affected in any way by the colour of your clothes.

Actually it would be better to put that as "You should consider wearing red instead of blue, because red compliments your hair better than blue does." Then you say "red and blue both compliment your hair equally." It's a question of aesthetic preferences, and the ultimate decision is up to the person who is soliciting our advice.

Except this doesn't seem to fit with the earlier discussion - there are several examples above in which we managed to agree that one form or the other was clearly preferable (normally on the basis of *what was being described* rather than on criteria of activeness or passiveness). And later on in this post you deny that your preferences are arbitrary.

In those several examples, we managed to find points at which our aesthetic preferences converged. Obviously all of aesthetics is to some extent arbitrary, but that doesn't mean that yours and mine can't be developed logically from that jumping-off point. Note that in my initial post on the subject, I did say: "Even though I definitely think the latter iterations of the two examples are better [referring to those without 'to be'], that's obviously a stylistic choice that might vary between readers, and not even a particularly important one." So right from the beginning I was acknowledging a certain degree of arbitrariness.

Many people believe that it is a rule of the English language that one should not split infinitives, and they seek to enforce this rule on other people. These people are *wrong* not in the moral sense, but in the empirical sense. It has never been a rule of the English language, either of grammar, or of good style, that one should avoid splitting infinitives.

Again you seem to be saying grammatical rules and stylistic rules ought to adhere to the same principles because they're both called "rules". They simply can't. Grammar to some extent has hard rules: in standard English, "I are hungry" is always wrong. Style is always an aesthetic choice, and while some people might believe their sense of aesthetics is best, and seek to impose it on others, it can't be a rule in the same sense as a grammatical one. It's more like a moral code or something. I think you understand that. If you were to argue that everyone should stop saying "rules of writing" or "stylistic rules" at all, and instead say "codes of writing" or "stylistic codes" or something similar, I'd agree, but for now it's so widespread that we're kind of stuck with it. Basically this is arguing semantics.

If your preferences are arbitrary and personal, then favouring "active" verbs over passive ones is exactly as meaningless as preferring verbs with an odd number of letters to verbs with an even number of letters. If they are not, then you do actually need to explain what you mean by an "active" verb, and explain why "active" verbs are better than "passive" ones.

Come now, I'm sure you can see that there's a big difference between the two. Just on a basic level, using an odd number of letters doesn't affect the meaning or tone or sound of writing at all, while preferring not to use "to be" when reasonably possible clearly changes more than that. To use the example from the article (again): "the rain fell in torrents" seems more active to me than "it was raining torrents" or "the rain was torrential" because it emphasizes an action rather than a state of being. This was discussed earlier, but in the more absolutist terms proposed by E Prime advocates; obviously the core meaning of the three examples is the same, but the emphasis is subtly different. You might not care about the difference in emphasis, but it's there. Why do I think "active" in that sense is usually more to my liking than "passive"? For much the same reasons I usually find active characters more to my liking than passive ones, though on a much smaller scale. When multiplied across an entire book, however, the stylistic difference to me becomes much more noticeable.

Anyway I think we've exhausted this line of dialog (or me, at least). If I still haven't made myself clear, well, at least I tried.
Wardog at 21:25 on 2012-08-06
Why do I think "active" in that sense is usually more to my liking than "passive"? For much the same reasons I usually find active characters more to my liking than passive ones, though on a much smaller scale. When multiplied across an entire book, however, the stylistic difference to me becomes much more noticeable.


I ... am ... so completely boggled.

It kind of reminds me of people freaking out in the Whatever Century when they realised that, mathematically speaking, two negatives equalled a positive and therefore arbitrarily applied the same criteria to language. Which was stupid.

I just don't understand how you can apply the proposed moral virtue of ACTIVENESS to, err, words.

I question existing, or not existing.

Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife.

The times had some good qualities and some bad qualities.
I can kind of sympathize with this "it means something to me even if it doesn't mean anything really" weirdness. I find that if I don't know where I'm going, or don't have anywhere in particular to be, I prefer to turn left rather than right, or to go west rather than east. If I'm actually intending to go to a particular place, I usually end up completely lost. But I find myself aesthetically satisfied nevertheless.
Dan H at 22:49 on 2012-08-06
It's a question of aesthetic preferences, and the ultimate decision is up to the person who is soliciting our advice.


Again, I think we're having a fundamental disagreement here. I'm *not* talking about an aesthetic preference, I'm talking about *good technique*. Aesthetic preferences are nothing whatsoever to do with it. Style is about *effectively achieving* your goals. Aesthetic preferences are about *which* goals you aim for.

In those several examples, we managed to find points at which our aesthetic preferences converged.


No, in those several examples, one construction was *actually better*. Because it communicated what it was trying to communicate *more clearly*.

This is not subjective, at least not as you are using the term.

Again you seem to be saying grammatical rules and stylistic rules ought to adhere to the same principles because they're both called "rules". They simply can't.


They absolutely can. You are both overestimating the subjectivity of style, and underestimating the subjectivity of grammar.

"I are hungry" is ungrammatical in English because every competent speaker of English *considers* it to be ungrammatical. If a sizable proportion of English people considered it grammatical, it would be grammatical.

Style is harder to define, but it does not simply come down to personal aesthetic judgements. Style is about *actual qualities* of writing. It's about whether your writing is simple or technical, about whether you use long or short sentences, about what you do and do not emphasize.

You *absolutely can* make objective statements about style. "I once met a man at a party whose name was Archibald" is less concise and more ambiguous than "I once met a man named Archibald at a party". Both of these statements are *provably true*. It is therefore also provably true that the second sentence is better style *if* you are trying to be concise and avoid ambiguity.

It's more like a moral code or something. I think you understand that.


If you told me something was immoral, I would ask you why it was immoral. If I did not agree with your reasoning, I would tell you. If you told me that you could no more tell me why you thought something was immoral than why you liked your favourite colour, I would seriously question your moral reasoning.

Come now, I'm sure you can see that there's a big difference between the two. Just on a basic level, using an odd number of letters doesn't affect the meaning or tone or sound of writing at all, while preferring not to use "to be" when reasonably possible clearly changes more than that.


Using an odd number of letters obviously changes the meaning and tone, because odd-numbered verbs are different to even-numbered verbs. It means you have to say "run" instead of "walk" or "sit" instead of "stand".

There is no reason to prefer the *effect* of odd-letter-verbs to even letter verbs, and there is no reason to prefer the *effect* of "active" to "passive" verbs either.

To use the example from the article (again): "the rain fell in torrents" seems more active to me than "it was raining torrents" or "the rain was torrential" because it emphasizes an action rather than a state of being.


And would you, by the same logic, suggest that - for example - "ran" is a more active verb than "walked" and that "walked" is a more active verb than "sat"? If so, are you suggesting that "he ran down the road" is better style than "he walked down the road"?

You might not care about the difference in emphasis, but it's there.


I *absolutely* care about the difference in emphasis. That's *exactly* what I care about. And in every case the correct choice is the one which emphasizes *the thing that you want to emphasize*.

Again, note that there is nothing *subjective* about this. I am absolutely okay with the fact that "the rain fell in torrents" emphasizes the action of falling, while "the rain was torrential" paints the rain as more of a backdrop. Where we part ways is that you seem to say that "the rain fell in torrents" is *always better*.

The idea that it is always best to emphasize action is *absurd*. We have seen, I have provided and you have agreed on, examples of situations in which emphasizing action is exactly the *wrong* thing to do. It seems increasingly clear that you aren't really talking about style, you're talking about *the sorts of things you want to read about*.

Why do I think "active" in that sense is usually more to my liking than "passive"? For much the same reasons I usually find active characters more to my liking than passive ones, though on a much smaller scale.


I think this is the core of the confusion. This isn't about style *at all*, it's about content.

Sentence structures that emphasize action are, of course, the most effective way to write *about action*. If, therefore, you like to read books which contain a lot of action, you will find that the books you like are most effective when they contain "active" verbs.

Content is, of course, almost wholly a subjective issue.
Dan H at 09:05 on 2012-08-07
can kind of sympathize with this "it means something to me even if it doesn't
mean anything really" weirdness.


Oh I absolutely get that as well, but the difference is that you're not proposing "turn left rather than right, go west rather than east" as a piece of general navigational advice for people who are actually trying to get places.

As I mentioned above, I prefer to say "fewer" to describe smaller numbers of countable objects and "less" to describe smaller quantities of uncountable substances, but I wouldn't advise people, as a matter of course, to use "fewer" unless I knew they were writing for an audience of grammar snobs.
you're not proposing "turn left rather than right, go west rather than east" as a piece of general navigational advice for people who are actually trying to get places.

And it wouldn't make sense to call that my "personal navigational style" because it really isn't; it's just a stupid thing I like to do for no reason when I don't have a reason not to. My "navigational style" is whatever will get me where I'm trying to go as conveniently as possible. There can't rationally be more to it than that.
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