[Articles on Communication][Freeing the Mind - Articles on Personal Development]

To be or not to be?

Now you might find this amazing, but this little word 'is' and its brothers and sisters (such as 'are', etc) have quite a few deadly enemies. Some even believe that this little word is a pestilence on our language and should be destroyed utterly!

This gang of word slayers call themselves followers of e-prime and their goal is to annihilate all members of the 'to be' family.

The Changer Gang

Let's examine this by first turning the time back 2000 or so years to those fun days of ancient Greece. Then, as now, there were two rival gangs. One gang believed that everything changed and nothing stayed the same. This gang had as their catchword, 'You can never step in the same river twice.'

Leaving aside the question why you'd want to step in a river anyway, their argument went that because the river flowed, the next step in the river was in different water so you weren't stepping in the same river twice. This principle applied to everything. Nothing remained the same. Everything changed.

The nothing changes gang

The rival gang argued the opposite: Nothing changed. Everything remained the same. There was no motion. Their weapon was reason. They argued:

Everything is where it is, or where it is not.

(So obvious, it's hardly worth saying - except for its remarkable consequences!)

For an arrow to move, it must go from where it is, to where it is not.

Well, an arrow is where it is.

It isn't where it is not.

But if it moves it must move from where it is.

And be where it is not.

It can never be where it is not.

Therefore, it can't move.

One gang leader argued this so enthusiastically he thrust out his arm with such power and such force he dislocated his shoulder and collapsed screaming in pain before the crowd.

An evil doctor stepped forward. 'Mm!' he said, 'it appears you've dislocated your shoulder. But ...

'For me to reduce the dislocation, I must move the shoulder from where it is, to where it is not. Clearly that is impossible.

'So unless you recant on your argument, I can do nothing.'

The monks translating this stuff, immediately left the story here, because, being fine people, they did not translate naughty words.

Let's come back 2000 odd years.

Suppose some rival gang member says to you:

'You're stupid.'

You do, of course hit them with the full power of the Being Specific Model:

  1. How do you know that?
  2. According to whom am I stupid?
  3. Stupid. Compared to whom?
  4. What criteria do you use to make that evaluation?
  5. How can one or more apparently stupid acts, lead one to the global conclusion that someone is stupid?

Five shots. One after the other, leaving the gangster quivering and reeling!

Now let's think. Who started this fight? According to that fascist group advocating genocide for the 'to be' family, the culprit is the verb 'to be.' The word 'are' started the fight! Incredible? Then consider this:

I am depressed.

This sentence suggests that:

I was depressed,

I am depressed, and

I will be depressed.

It suggests, because of the word 'am', that there will be no change. It also suggests that it is true that I am depressed. All sorts of assumptions follow the use of this little word 'am.' Of course, using the Being Specific Model, we can ask:

Who is depressing whom?

How are they doing it?

How do you know, specifically, that you are depressed?

What specific thoughts, ideas, feelings, mental images, etc are you experiencing now that make you appear depressed?

Yet at root is this word 'am.'

Suppose instead of using a part of the 'to be' family, we used a more accurate word, such as 'appear' or 'seem.'

I appear depressed.

Now this sounds a little funny. We are inclined to ask ignorantly, 'Are you depressed or not?'

But really this is a much more accurate statement. It isn't a fact that I am depressed. I don't know beyond any doubt that I am depressed. I appear to be depressed. To whom? Well to me, but perhaps my doctor said I was depressed, so I'd appear depressed to that person.

What makes it appear to you that you are depressed?

What do you see, hear, feel, think that makes you appear depressed?

Substituting the words 'appear' or 'seem' and similar words when we use a 'to be' word can radically change the way we think about the statement. It can jolt us out of the belief that everything remains the same into the idea of change.

You appear stupid. (Doesn't have the force of 'are', does it?)

Mm! Interesting. How do I appear stupid? (Not worth a fight, is it?)

Of course, we cannot make others do this substitution of 'appear' for 'to be' words, but what happens when we make this substitution mentally ourselves, and respond accordingly?

I am not a member of the e-prime gang, but I do find many of the ideas interesting. When thinking about a problem, it can help to rewrite your thoughts without the verb 'to be.'

It can blow charge out of words and statements.

It can encourage us to learn rather than to fight.

It removes false certainty in statements.

Why don't you try removing 'to be' from questions and problems and notice how this can open new ways of thinking? Also, try mentally translating statements by others with a strong 'to be' element, into ones that use 'appear'?

Use the Being Specific Model to make the statements more specific.

Let me know how you get on.

Speak soon.

Ken Ward.


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Most Recent Revision: 20-Mar-99.
Copyright 1998, 1999 Ken Ward,
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