Language – Litemind Exploring ways to use our minds efficiently. Mon, 01 Jan 2018 20:43:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sharpen Your Critical Thinking With E-Prime Tue, 24 Feb 2009 13:22:30 +0000 Have you ever heard of E-Prime? Critical thinkers use it as a tool to write, speak and think more clearly and accurately. Learn how you can use it to sharpen your critical thinking abilities, avoid mental traps and become a better thinker. An E-Prime Primer The term E-Prime (short for English Prime) refers to a […]

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Sharpen Your Critical Thinking With E-Prime

Have you ever heard of E-Prime? Critical thinkers use it as a tool to write, speak and think more clearly and accurately. Learn how you can use it to sharpen your critical thinking abilities, avoid mental traps and become a better thinker.

An E-Prime Primer

The term E-Prime (short for English Prime) refers to a dialect that completely removes the verb ‘to be’ in all its forms from the English language.

It turns out that the use of the verb to be alone may respond for a great deal of faulty reasoning we commonly find. Intentionally or not, people tend to abuse that verb, perpetuating a way of thinking that hinders proper critical thinking.

E-Prime helps bring awareness to how we use language and how it impacts thinking. It serves as a practical starting point for a less dogmatic way of thinking, and it goes much further than merely finding word substitutions for the missing ‘to be’s.

Now, consider for a minute how much you use the verb to be. Eliminating it from language means you can’t say sentences such as “The sky is blue”, “John is smart” or even the simplest “I’m hungry”. In fact, by my own reckoning, I estimate that about half of the phrases we say contain to be in some form.

Although we can easily reword “I’m hungry” as “I feel hungry”, in many cases the E-Prime conversion shows itself far from trivial. Before jumping right into using E-Prime, we must ponder the reasons to learn it and the benefits we may gain from not using the verb to be. Why bother with E-Prime at all?

9 Ways E-Prime Can Help You Become a Better Thinker

1. It Exposes Opinions Disguised as Facts

Consider “Beethoven is the best composer ever”, or “This is a stupid idea”. These sentences illustrate how we express opinions as if they represented established facts. Getting rid of to be helps us remember that much of what we say represents, as a matter of fact, just opinions. Consider the E-Prime alternatives for those sentences: “I like Beethoven’s compositions best”, and “I utterly dislike this idea!”.

2. It Promotes Higher Accuracy and Exposes Hidden Assumptions

Refraining from using the verb to be may require you provide much more detail than usual. For instance, when rewording “Jack is smart”, you could end up with “Jack scored 140 on his IQ test” or maybe “Jack earns money without working” — depending on your definition of ‘smart’. E-Prime encourages you to detail ambiguous words (such as ‘smart’), helping expose any hidden assumptions behind them.

3. It Reveals the (Fallible) Observer

Consider the statement “The Earth is round”. Notice how the verb to be carries with it an intellectual momentum of completeness, finality, and time-independence. It sounds like an absolute, immutable truth, doesn’t it? Yes, it does… exactly like the statement “The Earth is flat” just a few hundred years ago.

The alternative E-Prime construct “The Earth looks round” shows that an observer exists — an observer that simply perceives the Earth as round — and that this observer may have flaws in perception. E-Prime brings back a certain ‘humbleness’ in language, getting rid of the “God Mode” in speech and reminding us we make mistakes.

4. It Avoids Premature Judging and Labeling

E-Prime discourages abstractions that lead to labeling and prejudice. Contrast “Mary is Christian” with “Mary believes in the existence of Christ”. While these two sentences have the same meaning, the E-prime version avoids any prejudices associated with the label ‘Christian’.

As a side note, labeling happens not only when dealing with other people, but with ourselves. If you find yourself saying “I’m a pig!”, try the E-Prime “I eat like a pig”, or, going further, “I ate twice as much as I usually do at dinner”.

5. It Brings the Role Players Back

When using E-Prime, you’ll soon notice that using passive voice can get very hard. Although this looks limiting at first, I can tell that you’ll hardly miss passive voice once you get used to it.

When you can’t resort to uncompromising statements such as “Mistakes were made”, you’ll have to rephrase it as, say, “Steve made a mistake”. Or, if you really don’t know (or don’t want to expose) the doer, you could use “Someone in this room made a mistake”. This latter statement still rises as a superior alternative to the former, since at least you explicitly point out that exists a doer behind the action.

6. It Makes Language More Colorful

Before using it, I believed that E-Prime would make language more convoluted, duller and less personal.

Granted, your language may suffer if you have just taken your first steps in E-Prime (like me). However, with a little bit of practice, you’ll notice that E-Prime provides an excellent opportunity for a much more vibrant and vigorous way of writing. (Or do you think I didn’t consider the verb to be before choosing provides in the previous sentence?)

E-Prime promotes not only richer verb diversity but also improvements in style, too. If forced to rewrite common sentences such as “Sarah is wealthy”, one can come up with many stylistically superior variations instead, such as “Sarah possesses many riches”.

7. It Stimulates Debate

“You’re wrong”! In E-Prime, this easily turns into “I don’t see it that way”. This style of communication immediately opens the possibility for debate, without the need to overturn the other person’s statements first. Declarations such as “I liked the movie” invite healthy discussion and the sharing of different opinions — much more enticingly than the usual “The movie was good”.

In E-Prime, we deal with perceptions, not absolute truths. And perceptions never override each other, and thus can never clash.

8. It Improves Creativity

E-Prime can also help in the realm of creativity and problem solving. Firstly, it dissolves notions such as “There is no solution!”, turning them into superior choices such as “I haven’t found any solutions (yet)”.

More than that, E-Prime helps you overcome generalizations and get to the facts more objectively, enabling you to find solutions initially overlooked. After some E-Prime reframing, “The customer is stupid!” could become “The customer won’t buy our product even though it costs less”. The latter makes a much better starting point for coming up with solutions than the former.

9. It Exercises Your Brain

If for nothing else, try E-Prime for an excellent brain workout! Trust me, you’ll never know how challenging it gets if you don’t try it. Learning E-Prime feels exactly like learning a new language, except that instead of learning new constructs, you must ‘unlearn’ part of what you already know. It will fire up your neurons!

Parting Words

Before I finish this, let me say that E-Prime does not come without its imperfections. Many people expressed valid criticism, which I agree with in many ways.

Granted, E-Prime does not immunize you from falling into the traps of thinking I described. You can still state opinions as facts in E-Prime. You can still lie, deceive and express prejudice. Worse yet, you can still continue using to be implicitly, hiding the actual words but keeping it in spirit.

Also, for many people, E-Prime goes too far in eliminating to be altogether. In fact, many instances of to be don’t present any problems. For that reason, some have decided to adopt ‘lighter’ versions of E-Prime that allow some particular usages of to be.

For me, E-Prime symbolizes more a way of thinking than a mere grammar restriction. Its main goal consists of bringing a higher awareness on how language affects our thoughts — and not of enforcing a strict, blind limitation to language. It has more to do with developing new habits of thinking than with adhering to it rigidly.

Although I don’t plan to abandon regular English in favor of E-Prime, I still believe that everyone can benefit from trying it, if only for a while. Make a short trial and see for yourself how it affects your thinking and your awareness of your and other people’s language.

Additional Resources

I barely scratched the surface when it comes to E-Prime. If you want to get practical tips on forming sentences in E-Prime, or if you want to understand E-Prime implications more deeply, the Internet has many resources for you. Let me point out some of the best I’ve found:

What Do You Think?

This article comes as my first attempt to publish an article in E-Prime. As I took my first steps in E-Prime only a couple of weeks ago, let me know if the article sounds too awkward. Thank you!

P.S.: How about leaving your comments in E-Prime?

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10 Sure-Fire Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary Tue, 09 Oct 2007 12:52:40 +0000 There are several proven benefits in improving your vocabulary, but how should we go about learning new words in the most effective way? By using the following ten vocabulary-building strategies, you are guaranteed to develop a strong vocabulary and keep improving it every day. 1. Read Voraciously It’s undeniable that reading is the most effective […]

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10 Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary

There are several proven benefits in improving your vocabulary, but how should we go about learning new words in the most effective way? By using the following ten vocabulary-building strategies, you are guaranteed to develop a strong vocabulary and keep improving it every day.

1. Read Voraciously

It’s undeniable that reading is the most effective way to get new vocabulary. When you read, you see words being used in context — and that’s what makes it much more effective than, for example, merely memorizing word lists.

With context information surrounding each new word, there’s a good chance you can guess its meaning just by understanding the overall text. Finding out the meaning of words in such a way is the natural way of learning language – and reading provides the best opportunity to get exposed to this natural way of learning.

If you’re not able to infer the meaning of new words when reading, it’s probably because there are too many unknown words in the text. In that case, try reading easier materials. The key to good reading is making it a pleasurable activity; so don’t be afraid of coming across unknown words, but make sure the text is appropriate for your reading level.

2. Make Friends with the Dictionary

A dictionary is the first indispensible resource to improve your vocabulary. It’s only by looking up a word in a dictionary that you will learn its precise meaning, spelling, alternate definitions, and find much more useful information about it. A thesaurus is also a valuable resource for learning by finding connections between words, such as their synonyms and antonyms.

Consider adding a good dictionary and thesaurus to your bookshelf. Here are some recommendations:

For online dictionaries, there are many free options with great extra features. Even if you have a good dictionary in print already, you can’t miss having a good online dictionary at your disposal:

  • OneLook: Has a reverse lookup function (get the word from its definition) and works as a “meta-dictionary”, showing you definitions from other major online dictionaries. I recommend you try OneLook and explore its results to decide which dictionary you prefer;
  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary: An old-time favorite of mine, although the blinking ads are getting a bit annoying lately;
  • Ninjawords: It searches the free dictionary Wiktionary. What makes this site interesting is that you can look up multiple words simultaneously. Moreover, the results pages can be bookmarked – making them good personal reference pages;
  • Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus: If you’re a fan of mind mapping, you will certainly enjoy viewing related words represented in a visual map format;
  •,, The Free Dictionary and many others: All of them are good resources – try each one at least once to help you make up your mind.

3. Use It or Lose It

Don’t settle after you learn a new word by reading it or looking it up in the dictionary: these are good starts, but it’s by using the new words that you truly commit them to your long-term memory.

Be creative and try to use your newly learned words in as many ways as possible:

  • Write them down;
  • Say them aloud;
  • Create sentences with them, mentally or in writing;
  • Try to use them in a conversation;
  • Discuss them with friends.

It’s also important to be aware of your own language style: every time you catch yourself saying common or nonspecific words such as “nice”, try coming up with richer and more precise expressions instead.

4. Learn One New Word a Day

If you learn just one new word every day, you’ll soon notice they add up pretty quickly. I like to think of it as the “kaizen way of growing your vocabulary" and what makes this strategy stand out is that it can be used by anyone, no matter how busy one’s schedule is. In the same way I grow my collection of favorite quotes in baby steps by receiving a new famous quote every day, I also learned to enjoy growing my vocabulary by committing myself to learning at least one new word each day.

There are many websites that provide free word-of-the-day services, delivering them in many formats – such as e-mail, RSS feeds, podcasts and even text messages sent to your cell phone. Here are my favorites:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Word of the Day: This is the website that delivers the most useful words of all. It’s also the most feature-rich: it provides audio explanation, pronunciation and word history. The service is available by e-mail, RSS feed, podcast, and SMS;
  • WordSmart Wordcast: Provides difficulty level, comprehensive details and audio pronunciation for the word. Just like Merriam-Webster’s Online, it’s available by e-mail, RSS feed, podcast and SMS;
  • Dictionary Word of the Day: Another fine service, not as complete as Merriam-Webster’s or WordSmart, but still worth checking out.

5. Understand the True Meaning of Words

By deeply understanding words, you can make your vocabulary grow exponentially. Instead of just memorizing words, try to really understand them by looking at their etymology, word roots, prefixes and suffixes. At least half of English words are derived from Greek and Latin roots, so there are enormous benefits in being familiar with them.

Just to pick an example, when you understand that the prefix “ortho” means straight or right, you start to find connections between seemingly unrelated words, such as orthodontist (a specialist who straightens teeth) and orthography (the correct, or straight way of writing).

Understanding the logic behind words always pays off in terms of learning and recalling. Consider the examples: “breakfast” meaning “interrupt the night’s fast”; or “rainbow” meaning “bow or arcg caused by rain”: while these meanings may be trivial to native English speakers, having such insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to delight me.

6. Maintain a Personal Lexicon

By keeping a personalized list of learned words, you’ll have a handy reference you can use to review these words later. It’s very likely you’ll want to go back and refresh your memory on recent words, so keeping them in your own list is much more efficient than going back to the dictionary every time.

Even if you never refer back to your lexicon again, writing words down at least once will greatly enhance your ability to commit them to your permanent memory. Another excellent learning aid is to write an original sentence containing the word — and using your lexicon to do that is a great way of enforcing this habit. You can also add many other details as you see fit, such as the date you first came across the word or maybe a sequential number to help you reach some word quota you define.

There are many ways you can keep your personal word list; each one has its own advantages and disadvantages – so make sure to pick the format that works best for you. You may prefer to keep it as a simple text file in the computer, or in a regular paper notebook; or maybe as flash cards in a shoe box.

My format of choice is a computer spreadsheet, for its handy features such as searching, sorting and filtering. For each word, I have columns for the date I learned it, a sample sentence, along with a link to its definition in an online dictionary. Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with keeping my personal lexicon in a concept map. This has been working particularly well so far, and I plan to explore the technique in more depth here when I get more conclusive results.

7. Follow a Process

To make vocabulary improvement a permanent habit in your everyday life, you should make it as habitual, automatic and tightly integrated in your daily workflow as possible – otherwise you won’t do it when your days get too busy.

If you already adopt some kind of structured workflow for your life – such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done – you’re probably familiar with the idea of organizing all input that comes to your life in “buckets”: virtual inboxes that get processed in a similar way to your e-mail inbox.

In that regard, one particularly useful concept is the one of maintaining a “Word Inbox”. By having a predefined place you use to capture the words you come across, you can process them much more efficiently. For example, my word inboxes, which I try to empty once a day, consist of my word-of-the-day feed and of notes on my PDA – which I use to capture any new words I discover during the day.

Your process can be as simple as you wish – the key is to define it beforehand and then follow it. By knowing exactly how and how often to process your inbox, you stay on top of your vocabulary improvement process, even when there are other pressing matters crying out for your attention.

8. Play and Have Fun

Playing games and engaging in group activities are useful in any kind of learning, but particularly effective for language-related learning. Gather your family and friends and play word games together. Some interesting options are Quiddler, as well as the classics Scrabble and Boggle.

If you don’t want to spend money on boxed games, it’s easy to come up with your own word activities. You may, for example, try your own variation of “Word Evening”: at a specific day of each week, a different person brings a new word to the meal. The person reads the word, defines it, and the others must come up with a sentence using the word.

If you don’t have time or don’t want to engage in group activities, there are numerous options of word games in the Internet. You can either play them when you’re bored, or integrate them in your daily routine, such as playing a quick game after lunch, for example. Consider the following recommendations:

9. Leverage Every Resource You Can

The Internet is a gold mine of resources for vocabulary building. The links I collected here are just my personal recommendations and don’t even scratch the surface of what’s available online.

There are plenty of vocabulary applications you can try. There are many vocabulary-related books you can explore. There is a wealth of free literature on sites such as Project Gutenberg. If you use the Firefox browser, there are many ways to integrate dictionary lookup functions, such as the plug-ins and DictionarySearch. You can find specialized vocabulary lists, such as these feeling words or descriptive words. Damn, you can even learn some classy, Shakespearian insults! 🙂

The point is that you’re only limited by your willingness to learn: let curiosity be your guide and you will never run out of resources to learn from.

10. Diversify

Do something different from your daily routine: hunting, fishing or blogging – any activity that is not a part of your normal life can become a great way to learn new words, as every niche has its own jargon and unique ways of communicating. Read different books and magazines than the ones you’re used to. Watch foreign-language movies. Take up new hobbies, hang out with different people.

By doing things out of the ordinary you will not only improve your vocabulary but also make your life much more interesting.

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Top 3 Reasons to Improve Your Vocabulary Tue, 02 Oct 2007 17:51:14 +0000 Developing a great vocabulary is one of the most overlooked ways to improve our lives. It is often believed that learning many words is only useful for writers and speakers, but the truth is that everyone benefits from it, both personally and professionally. Vocabulary Sharpens Your Communication Contrary to what some people believe, the point […]

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Top 3 Reasons to Improve Your Vocabulary

Developing a great vocabulary is one of the most overlooked ways to improve our lives. It is often believed that learning many words is only useful for writers and speakers, but the truth is that everyone benefits from it, both personally and professionally.

Vocabulary Sharpens Your Communication

Contrary to what some people believe, the point of having a good vocabulary is not to use fancy, arcane or complicated words to impress or confuse other people. In order to be effective, communication has to be simple. What’s the point in learning so many new words? Doesn’t that only make using language more complicated?

If learning new words and using simple language seem like contradictory goals at first, it makes complete sense when you understand that having a good vocabulary is more than knowing a large amount of words: the point of having a good vocabulary is being able to choose words with greater precision.

Think of your vocabulary as your “communication toolbox”: every word is a tool, ready to be used at the right time. The more tools you master, the better your chances are of finding the right one for the communication task at hand. But having a huge stock of words at your disposal is not the ultimate goal. Every time you grasp a new word, you end up with more than just a new tool: you understand the ones you already know better.

By comparing the meaning of new words with the ones you already know, you understand them in a deeper way, enabling you to choose them more effectively. More often than not, this means knowing the easier words and their meaning more thoroughly. Hence, a good vocabulary often makes your communication simpler – and not the opposite as many people think.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." –Mark Twain

Vocabulary Opens Your Mind

My favorite story that illustrates the importance of vocabulary is from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In a dark view of the future, Orwell pictured a world ruled by an authoritarian government that controls every citizen. In this world, no one escapes being watched by video cameras, which are present even inside people’s homes. But when it comes to control, there was something even more effective than the ubiquitous cameras, and that was the official language: Newspeak.

Newspeak is rigidly controlled by the government, and it’s the only language whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. In Newspeak, words that convey subversive thoughts – like “freedom” – simply don’t exist anymore. By systematically removing or distorting the meaning of words, the government takes away the tools to question its authority. Without words to exchange or perpetuate ideas, these ideas start to gradually disappear from people’s minds. Without not even being aware of it, people became completely powerless and easily controlled.

Although this example may be a bit extreme, it serves to illustrate the point: when you lack words, you shut down new insights and lines of reasoning. People who possess a limited vocabulary have a much tougher time breaking out from old patterns of thought or questioning. By the same token, each new word you learn opens a new avenue of thought, empowering you to think or take action in ways you could never have before.

“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” –Philip K. Dick

Vocabulary Gets You Results

The researcher Johnson O’Connor, known for his studies about the impact of vocabulary on people’s lives, has drawn many amazing conclusions from a vast amount of tests and experiments, performed in more than 20 years of research.

A significant part of his research observed successful people in many walks of life, trying to correlate their success with factors such as gender, age, scholarship levels and many others, including vocabulary level. He tested people on the most diverse endeavors, such as students about to take their SATs, engineers working in their areas of expertise, executives in large corporations and many others.

He always found the same results, no matter which area he looked at, and no matter how he analyzed the data: a person’s vocabulary level is the best single predictor of occupational success.

This astounding discovery can be illustrated by the following study, made with managers in 39 large manufacturing companies. Below are the average results of an extensive vocabulary test, averaged and grouped by hierarchical level:

Vocabulary Test Scores

O’Connor took extreme care to statistically isolate variables that could distort the results. Scholarship level and age, for example, were taken into account to make sure it was indeed vocabulary, and not something related, that correlated with success. His studies also show that vocabulary usually comes before achievement, and not as a consequence of it. Even if we’re not able to ultimately prove the correlation, it’s hard to ignore O’Connor’s findings.

What determines professional success? Especially for knowledge workers, I would risk saying professional success depends entirely on thinking and communication skills. If you analyze every activity you perform as a knowledge worker, you’ll always get down to either thinking (as the activity that leads to the creation of something new) or communicating (as the activity that gets your ideas across). Well, if words are tools for both thought and communication, it’s no surprise that those who master them have a much greater chance of success – not only professionally, but in their lives as a whole.

How About Improving Your Own Vocabulary?

If you decide to give your vocabulary a boost, the good news is that you won’t need to go back to school or do boring word exercises. You take the most important step just by understanding why you should improve and by your willingness to do so.

For specific ways to improve your vocabulary, please check the article ‘10 Sure-Fire Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary

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