Saturday, January 15, 2022
I hope you are all enjoying 2022 so far. As you look for ways to refresh your writing in the new year, consider using E-Prime. Christopher Wren first introduced me to E-Prime, which “’refers to a subset of English that shuns any form of the verb ‘to be.’” See Christopher Wren, E-Prime Briefly: A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, Mich. Bar J. 52, http://www.michbar.org/file/barjournal/article/documents/pdf4article1187.pdf (July 2007). In other words, to write in E-Prime, a drafter should avoid most “to be” verbs.
While removing all forms of “to be” might sound daunting, I promise you will like the resulting clear, concise writing. For attorneys and students who struggle with word limits, tightening sentences through E-Prime will usually save words. Moreover, E-Prime requires writers to focus on the actor without using “is” as a definition, and thus increases precision.
As Mark Cohen explained: “Would you like to clarify your thinking? Construct more persuasive arguments? Improve your writing? Reduce misunderstandings? You can. Just avoid using the verb to be.” Mark Cohen, To Be or Not to Be--Using E-Prime to Improve Thinking and Writing, https://blogs.lawyers.com/attorney/contracts/to-be-or-not-to-be-using-e-prime-to-improve-thinking-and-writing-65489/ (Nov. 2020). Cohen listed many examples of how E-Prime adds clarity, including by revealing the observer and forcing us to avoid “passing off our opinions as facts.” Id.
Wren also provides great examples of E-Prime removing passive voice and shortening clauses. Wren, A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, at 52. Here are two of Wren’s examples:
Before: Doe’s assertion that he was prejudiced by the joint trial is without merit.
After E-Prime: Doe’s assertion that the joint trial prejudiced him lacks merit.
Before: Generally, an order denying a motion for reconsideration is not an appealable order where the only issues raised by the motion were disposed of by the original judgment or order.
After E-Prime: Generally, the party moving for reconsideration may not appeal an order denying the motion if the original judgment or order disposed of the only issues raised by the motion.
As a legal writing professor, I especially like the way E-Prime adds clarity and removes passive voice. Since passive voice requires “to be” verbs, students who remove those verbs will also remove passives. Thus, I now teach my students struggling with passive writing to look for all “to be” verbs followed by other verbs in their drafts. Students who initially did not recognize passives tell me they now write more concisely by editing out “is,” “was,” and other “be” verbs.
In his Michigan Bar Journal article, Wren shared that moving to E-Prime was not simple, in part “[b]ecause Englishlanguage communication relies so heavily on ‘to be’ constructions, removing them from the written form struck me as requiring more time and dedication than I thought I could muster, then or in the foreseeable future.” Id. When Wren first told me about E-Prime, I too found the idea of rewriting so many sentences impractical. But after letting the idea percolate for a bit, I reached the same conclusion as Wren, who explained that in the end, “EPrime helped me improve my writing” and “made my writing clearer by forcing me to pay more attention than usual to ensuring the reader will not have to guess who did what.” Id.
Thus, I urge you to give E-Prime a try. With just a bit of practice, you can employ E-Prime to remove words from and add clarity to your appellate briefs, memos, and even emails.