An E-Primer on Writing for UI

I’m not a professional writer but I’m gonna write about writing. Alright? Right. Let’s go.

Some Background

Back in the mid-twentieth century an English and linguistics professor named D. David Bourland, Jr. invented English-Prime, a semantic alternative to standard English. Advocates called it E-Prime for short, and sometimes coolly abbreviated it as É in the trades (mainly folks who knew how to type the accent).

The first rule of E-Prime is don’t use the “to be” verb form.

When I first found out about E-Prime it read like a precious formal exercise analogous to Dogme 95 for cinema with its strict checklist of requirements and board approval.

But after closer examination I realized E-Prime is much simpler. It isn’t about imposing stylistic constraints—instead the aim is to eliminate ambiguity in the English language.

(Please note: Some languages have the ‘to be’ form baked into other verb forms making it difficult to separate the concepts. É is an English-specific invention.)

Forbidden

be being been am is / isn’t are / aren’t was / wasn’t were / weren’t

Allowed

become has / have / having / had do / does / doing / did can / could will / would (they’d) shall / should / ought may / might / must remain equal

This table illustrates the basic do’s and don’t’s of E-Prime

Goals of É

Its prime directive is separation of perception from facts. Active over passive statements. Eliminating bias, ambiguity, persuasion, and implied objectivity from the our words.

Here are a few sentences converted to E-Prime:

It’s freezing outside! The koi pond has frozen solid.
Derek is dumb. Derek twice failed gym class.
Word clouds are stupid. This word cloud won’t explain our Q3 earnings dip.
I’m sad. Kijana’s pet hedgehog ate my birthday cake.

Notice that replacing the passive ‘to be’ verb forms changes these opinionated, blanket statements into unbiased, quantifiable facts; specific subjects are addressed instead of vague concepts.

While the initial intent was for ALL writers to express ideas more clearly, it gained the strongest support in scientific, medical, and technical communities, where ambiguity has serious consequences. This leads me to believe that there are opportunities to take advantage of É in UI.

The cold, sad fact that many users don’t/won’t read instructions or manuals (when companies are thoughtful enough to provide them) means they rely on us to create simple and intuitive designs. Jason Fried famously said ‘copywriting is interface design’ [emphasis mine] and the thread that connects almost all software is words. Ambiguity is public enemy #1 in software and the words we choose mustn’t be if users are to easily navigate our designs and accomplish their tasks.

Here are a few sample error messages converted to E-Prime:

A required field was not filled. Please complete the required fields “City” and “First pet’s maiden name”.
Password is too short. Choose a password containing at least sixty-four (64) characters.
Photoshop Online Help could not be displayed because you are not connected to the Internet. Photoshop Online Help requires an active Internet connection.
The file is missing. Please upload the file: “candid_selfie.png”.

These sample phrases show two things. First, they demonstrate that even though the original phrasing is succinct, the messages do not tell the user exactly what is required to complete a task or resolve an issue. Second, that É phrases skew longer.

Often we try to use as few words as possible when composing dialogs or alert messages — text messaging and Twitter have trained us well in the art of brevity. It takes skill and practice to communicate with economy and designers might balk at some É translations. Our message may be more clearly stated, but an unfortunate side effect is that it doesn’t always result in shorter phrasing. While our microcopy might not be quite as micro it will almost always result in a less ambiguous message. It’s up to us to strike the right balance when writing for our users.

On the other hand…

There are absolutely situations where É might wear out its welcome. Consider this message and its É conversion:

There is not enough disk space to save this file. A file of this size requires more disk space.

The original wording doesn’t present any issues of perception that needs clarifying. The É translation offers no new information while even adding a touch of formality that might put off users. And the system knows if there absolutely is or is not enough room for the file. Storage capacity is not a semantic riddle.

I don’t believe that all written English needs É conversion (nor did its inventor) but it can be a helpful tool to distill a phrase to its most essential truth. While É may be clearer and less ambiguous it can seem a bit robotic if the author doesn’t carefully choose their words. A strict É novel would just be weird, and Portal’s dialog probably wouldn’t be nearly as funny. But in cases where we want the lowest chance of users misinterpreting our message English-Prime offers a valuable starting framework.

References and some additional reading: