What was E-Prime?

After college, I was working at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I was an art major, I soon found myself writing instructional copy. Before long, I was an official copywriter. The year was 1992, and “E-Prime” was the talk of business writing journals and articles everywhere. “E-Prime” advocated using active voice and eschewing the verb “to be” in most instances, including the preceding four sentences, which would instead read:

After college, I took a job at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I majored in art, I volunteered to write instructional copy. Before long, I added “copywriter” to my job description. In 1992, articles about business writing touted something called “E-Prime…”

Linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., proposed E-Prime as a way to eliminate passive voice and other lazy writing habits. As I mentioned, E-Prime forbids using the verb “to be” in all but the existential sense, and thus makes it impossible to use passive voice. 

Alas, E-Prime was only a fad in the annals of business writing. Now it is mostly an academic exercise (which is why I’m using the “to be” verb again). But its brief appearance on the scene called attention to a problem: writers don’t think when they write. More than anyone, I understand the demands of deadline. I also understand sometimes one must use passive voice when defining the doer is difficult or impossible. (“Too many buildings in our neighborhood are neglected.”) But thinking is neither difficult nor time-consuming. In fact, if you write for business, it’s what someone pays you for.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker that claims “well-behaved women rarely make history.” If Lexicide sold bumper stickers, one might read “well-behaved writers rarely make sense.” It’s time to misbehave and not accept trendy words. What’s more, it’s time to put some thought back into memos, white papers and proposals. Having E-Prime in mind when you write forces you to think about nouns and verbs. I don’t advocate it as a way of life, but you might find it takes your brain off auto-pilot, and makes writing not only mischievous, but fun again.

— Otto E. Mezzo

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