Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Monday, April 16, 2007

I, E-Primus

Blogging about blogging. What could be duller? Admittedly, some do it well – bloggers who focus on how the blog technology is proceeding, where the medium is going, what it’s good for, and who also write well. But that last is key: a good writer not only grabs you about things you’re interested in, but can also make a subject interesting even if you’ve never heard of it before, or never thought of it as interesting.

Maintaining my blog has entered into my categories of Uberman On-Ramp progress. But what could be more redundant than to mention it? “Oh, and I blogged today.” Yeah, we see that; we also see that you slacked off for three days prior. Thanks for the update, guy.

To be a true category of progress, blogging must be something I’m doing ever better. But blogging is just writing. Sure, the medium features some of its own peculiarities, idioms and conventions, and it has a few usability issues as with anything involving computers. In the end, though, blogging better means writing better.

Hereby resolved:
(1) You won’t see me use the word “I” more than once per paragraph, and never in the first sentence of any paragraph.
(2) I [don’t jump down my throat – the above was a paragraph and the “I” was in quotes!] will try to use E-prime to the extent reasonable.

(No confusion about the first rule, but ... E-prime? What’s that? I’ll get to it in a minute.)

These resolutions were inspired by a recent column by William Safire. He wrote about the politicized uses of the word “existential”, as in“existential threat”. He divined that writers and speechmakers resort to such usage only to pump up the volume and puff up their authority. What does “existential threat” mean, after all, except “a threat to the very existence (of a people or a nation or a way of life), which I must underscore by using a big philosophical word commonly associated with a bleak world-view, nameless dread, and chain-smoking in dingy Left Bank cafes”? Perhaps we should blame Norman Mailer, who (in Armies of the Night, IIRC) tottered drunkenly on stage before a crowd of Vietnam War protesters and proclaimed, “This is an existential moment!”. (But why, Norman? Because, with so many eyes on you, you were that much more convinced of your own existence?)

I digress. [“Gotcha!” cries the reader.]

In this column, Safire made two excellent tangential points:

(1) Frequent use of “I” often sounds egocentric.
(2) “Existential sentences” (for example, ones starting with “There is”), when used sparingly, might have their place, but repeated use makes for dull and pompous reading.

Who would second-guess Safire on writing, even when he’s dispensing pearls of stylistic wisdom only parenthetically? I was brought up short. After all, precious reader time spent on William Safire is, at least potentially, reader time not spent on me, myself and my blog. Millions of blogs compete for many reddened eyeballs. My blog ranks very low in the Great Chain of e-Being. Had it become yet another denizen of the swamp of blogospheric self-absorption? Were my entries full of egotistical I’s, and dreaded existential forms? Could it be time for a writing tune-up?

Cue E-prime. E-prime consists of English shorn of all forms of the verb“to be”. A student of Alfred Korzybski, arch-druid of the nutty semantic cult of General Semantics, invented it because he believed “to be” contributed too much to general vagueness, and, consistent with the teachings of General Semantics (which might be described as “Better living through more precise language”) doing without it would help people see things as they really ... um ... exist? It was an existential moment, and a moment of existential threat, a threat of great moment, to existential sentences everywhere.

Reality caught up with General Semantics. Language will always understate reality, and extreme precision is not only nerdy and dulling, it’s usually redundant in context. We know a lot before anything gets said or written, we fill in the blanks in our minds, and in speech we communicate a great deal non-verbally. Whatever the virtues of E-prime, it was buried when the General Semantics house of cards collapsed.

E-prime resurfaced in a mildly tongue-in-cheek essay published in the Atlantic Monthly, some years ago. The writer noted that nobody can speak pure E-prime, and that adopting it as a style during periods of sustained, intense writing tended to cause the writer to get a headache lasting about one week. (At the end of his piece, he pointed out that you had just read a whole essay written in E-prime without missing “to be”. But also that he had this incredible headache.)

The use of E-prime (within reason) does tend to spruce up prose. Some of its salutary effects might stem from a sort of placebo effect: E-prime forces you to read your own prose more carefully and rewrite it more carefully. As well, finding replacements for all forms of “to be” (and its sneaky variants – the colon for example) forces one to find verbs that usually ... um ... “are” more precise. “What do I really mean?” you ask yourself. You try one verb. Then another. If you’re lucky, you attain bon mot nirvana. If you’re not, at least you’ve done better than usual.

From now on: I, E-Primus. (Gotcha! cries the reader. And Gotcha!)


At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Generic Viagra Online said...

As well, finding replacements for all forms of “to be” (and its sneaky variants – the colon for example) forces one to find verbs that usually ... um ... “are” more precise.


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