Words to watch for: zombie nouns

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“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

In her New York Times essay, the academic and writer Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” — that is, nouns that contains within them shorter verbs, adjectives, or other nouns — “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Academics, we’re told, love zombie nouns; that may be because academics are frequently concerned with abstract concepts, or it may be because we all like the idea of a reinvigorated, reanimated, living dead thing (can you say, “revise and resubmit”?).

A nominalization or “zombie noun” can often be recognized by an ending such as:

  • -able
  • -ance
  • -ation
  • -ency
  • -ian
  • -ion
  • -ism
  • -ity
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -sion

Zombie nouns are a problem when they render your writing more abstract than it needs to be. So how can you talk about an abstract concept — say, participation, or perception, or relationships — without letting the zombie hoards deaden your writing?

Besides asking your word processing software to find every “-ation” and “-ity” in your text, you can also use my free digital tool to quickly identify zombie nouns: writingwellishard.com will highlight nominalizations in purple

Once you have identified your nominalization, you have three options to fix it:

  1. Find a better alternative: a shorter noun, a simpler noun, or a new verb for your sentence:
    • The shorter noun: Is the problem at the core of your investigation really stigmatization, or is it more simply stigma?
    • The simpler noun: Are you describing the thing — the food, the tool, the gene — or are you describing the role that thing plays in your discipline? Neurologists may be more interested in social avoidance than in the actions of any individual mouse, but their sentences will still be clearer when their subjects are tangible things like mice as compared to abstract roles or behaviours like social avoidance. Stephen Pinker contrasts the zombified “Prevention of neurogenesis diminished social avoidance” against the clearer, more tangible, “When we prevented neurogenesis, the mice no longer avoided other mice” (in The Sense of Style 2014: p. 50).
    • The new verb: Do you need to talk about an indication [noun] of something, or can you instead say that something indicates [verb]? (Wayne Schiess at LegalWriting.net has some great examples sentences of de-nominalized phrases in his 2008 blog post, “When verbs become nouns.” )
  2. Move your sentence’s subject and verb closer together. In English, sentences that have a subject → verb format are much easier to follow than sentences that have a format like subject → long string of words → verb. Because zombie nouns often incorporate verbs, they’re more likely to resemble this latter structure. Move your subject and its verb next door to each other, and you’ll likely have to kick out your nominalization. Compare, for example, these two sentences adapted from The Purdue OWL:
    • Elephants → argue over small concerns, just like humans. [subject → verb]
    • Arguments [zombie noun] over small concerns are something elephants have, just like humans. [subject → long string of words → verb]
  3. Keep your nominalization, but pair it with a lively, fresh language. Sometimes you need to use a zombie noun. This blog post, on nominalizations, can’t avoid using a zombified term. When you’re in this kind of situation, write strategically. Enliven your undead, abstract topic with words that evoke a sensory experience:
    • Use original, punchy verbs, rather than the stale old “demonstrates” or “is” (discussed in my earlier post on “hollow verbs”).
    • Mix in a vignette, scenario, case study, anecdote, or telling physical detail — anything that grounds your reader in something they can picture, feel, or otherwise sense.
    • Give one sentence per paragraph a human subject, whether that is human is another scholar (“Sword suggests …”), a generic prototype (“Undergraduates believe …”), or a member of your research team (“The Research Assistant drew …”)

The occasional zombie noun won’t sink your writing. What will, however, is a reliance on nominalizations that prevent good writing through abstraction and that are an indication of an insufficiency of time spent editing!

To quickly search for nominalizations in your own writing, check out writingwellishard.com.

Want to learn more about zombie nouns? Check out Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet:

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