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Beware the zombie noun

4th April, 2024

Beware the zombie noun

Q: What do lawyers, bureaucrats and academics have in common?

 

(This isn’t a joke, sadly.)

 

A: They all love a zombie noun.

 

What’s a zombie noun (also known as a ‘nominalisation’)?

 

Well, it’s an adjective or verb that’s been turned into a noun with a suffix like      -ity, -tion or -ism. e.g. Abstract concepts becomes abstractions

 

Academic Helen Sword coined the phrase in an article for the New York Times back in 2012, where she describes zombie nouns as ‘sucking the lifeblood’ from your writing. 

 

She shares this chill-inducing example using 7 zombie nouns:

 

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

 

The problem?  Apart from the fact that reading this sentence feels like wading through treacle in lead boots, it’s impossible to know who is doing what.

 

Sword then adds a human subject and some active verbs so the sentence ‘springs back to life’.  The transformation is staggering:

 

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalisations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

 

So watch out for zombie nouns in your everyday writing so you don’t end up with sentences like:

 

The timely socialisation of the documentation is necessary to ensure community participation.

 

Add that all-important human subject (we) and some active verbs (share, fill out) and you’ve got:

 

We need to share the document with plenty of notice so people fill it out.

 

Much better, right? We know exactly who is doing what.

 

So don’t let zombies suck the life out of your writing.  

 

Cut them out (preferably with an axe to the brain, if you believe the movies).

accenture
UBS
Ricoh
Euromoney
University of Cambridge

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