Destroying Trust with Just a Verb

The Associated Press decided to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its reporting. Their point: the term ‘illegal’ should be applied to actions, but not to persons. It’s the immigration equivalent of, “hate the game, not the player.”

Of course, that’s red meat to a lion for some. Senator John McCain said, “You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal. There’s a big difference…I’ll continue to call it illegal.” And so the battle is joined. Where one side sees respect, another sees absurd political correctness.

This is a worthless, useless, and totally unnecessary argument. It is also typical of a great many pretend arguments – full of energy and fury, truly signifying nothing.

And who’s the culprit? A verb. To be precise, the verb “to be.” I’m not kidding.

The Tyranny of the Verb “To Be”

In Spanish (and other Romance languages, I think), the English “to be” actually has three forms: estar, tener, and ser. Estar refers to a temporary condition: he is tired, she is in Europe, I’m sick. Tener refers to “having” a passing state – I have hunger, you have thirst, he has luck. Ser, the third form of “to be,” has to do with permanence: he is a man, you are virtuous, she is from the US.

In English, all those forms translate into one word, to be: I am, you are, he is.

Why is that a problem? Consider these interactions:

“The new Bond movie is great.” “No it isn’t, it stinks.”

“He is always negative.” “No, he’s just realistic.”

“You’re not serious.” “I am totally serious!”

“He’s an illegal.” “How can you be so judgmental?”

Because we have only one verb in English to cover so many situations, we end up bludgeoning each other. Since we can’t distinguish our several meanings, we assume others mean the same thing we do.  And when it turns out they meant something else, we chalk it up to obtuseness and  bad will on their part.

Which explains why I always have good intentions – but you! You’re always working some angle.

The American Burden

We’re not about to add two new verbs to American English (I can’t speak for the British or the Strines). But it’s not like we’re handcuffed. All we need is a little clarity of thinking.

1. Distinguish between actions and actors. The AP had this one right. You can still morally condemn people if you want – just don’t be sloppy about your definitions of morality.

2. Distinguish between your preferences and the other’s characteristics. I am not annoying – you are annoyed.

3. Avoid using personal pronouns with “to be” except for “I” and “it.” We have a right to say “I am __.”  We don’t have the same right to say “you are __” or “he is __.”  Only a rocking chair is oblivious to the difference.

I am fairly confident it’ll work for you. Unless you’re seriously pigheaded, that is.

This post first appeared on TrustMatters.
4 replies
  1. Clint Fyke
    Clint Fyke says:

    Search for E-prime for a primer on the concept. Robert Anton Wilson wrote entire books using E-prime.
    Context creates meaning. When forced to rewrite, to avoid using the verb “to be”, we must reveal parts of the perspective from which an idea originates. We separate facts, beliefs and judgements in the process.

    The word is originates from Sanskrit. It comes from “Isam” which means “to breath”. Now inanimate objects, concepts and evaluations acquire life through its evolved ambiguity. The alternative to completely eliminating the verb from rhetoric, would require picking only one use for concrete use, one for conceptual use and a singular symbolic meaning. Meanings fit those three categorical types.

    In expository journalism the need to reveal perceptual position, exposes the underlying presuppositions and bias of the writer. The vagueness exposes the writer in the process. No hiding behind vagueness, can create fear. I intentionally wrote this comment eliminating urges to use the verb “to be”. As an intellectual exercise, it forced me to reveal thinking behind my thinking when rewriting. That process reveals the difference and should be taught as part of writing.

    As one of many ideas having merit that never became part of everyday use, I fear this just adds to the pile. We can only hope.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Clint, that’s fascinating – nice work!

      I too have found that, while it while hardly ever “catch on,” it is a powerful exercise in taking responsibility, in being more clear about our intentions and statements, to become conscious of (or to actually use alternative formulations, as you suggest) the use of ‘to be.’

      Great stuff, thank you.

  2. Greg Woodley
    Greg Woodley says:

    Hi Charles,
    Like your comments under”The American burden”.
    We used to talk about nominalisations. If you can’t physically put in the wheelbarrow is needs defining.
    For example you can’t put love in a wheelbarrow. So to be sure when we talk about “love” we are talking about the same thing we have to define the act of “loving”
    On the sales from someone talks about “good service” we need to define what THEY mean by “good service”.


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