Zombie Words Are Coming for Your Brains

Have you used a zombie noun today? Hang your head in shame, because you're part of the problem. 

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We'd like to draw your attention to a New York Times Opinionator piece from Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing, on a matter we love, i.e., words. She's discussing nouns that when formed with other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Sounds fancy, but you see them all the time, particularly in this crazy Internet world where grammar and "dictionary status" are often played fast and loose. Sword writes:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Ah yes, the vile "ism" and "tion": Sometimes we make them up—Brooklynification, Disneyfication, blogism—but many versions of these are well established and dictionary-approved. They are hiding in our midst! (Gentrification, corporatism, politicization, and so on). As evidence of the horror and widespread destruction they wreak, and also because it's just catchier than nominalization, itself a nominalization, Sword refers to such words as zombie nouns. Politicians use them a lot, as do academics in their ivory towers, as do corporate types in their boardrooms where they get to make up fake words, as do—uh—writers on the Internet.

Sword continues:

Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

Zombie nouns are also bad because they make a writer seem pompous, she says, and possibly like he or she doesn't even know what to say since, couched in so much wordability, these sentences hide the very point. Worse, she says, nominalizations are hard to understand and may put readers to sleep. For example, "The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction," Sword explains, would be better and more clearly stated as "Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract." We have to agree. In the de-nominalized format, too, we get an active rather than a passive sentence, something we all typically aspire to achieve. But under cover of zombie nouns, maybe people simply hope that what they're saying won't be understood at all and will simply be passed off as smart. This could in fact be called the "zombification" of writing.

Sword's not all anti-zombie noun, though, saying that they do help us express complex ideas, sometimes. And probably, we're too far gone at this point to ever consider attempting to do away with them, in any case. At the same time, a highly complex sentence full of nominalizations is not going to be so successful at expressing anything, other than the need for its writer—and reader—to find a new way to express himself. This is a broader point about writing that goes beyond nouns made into "izations," "itys," or "isms," and it's a lesson even the best writer can remind him or herself of yet again: Humanize your writing. Use examples. Be clear and use simple language when it works; no need to make things flowery or overcomplicated. Above all, remember that you're using words to communicate with others, not simply to partake in a monologization with yourself. Right? Keep that stuff in your own brain(s).

It's worth reading Sword's piece the whole way through for greatness like George Orwell's comparison of  "a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes with his own satirical translation":

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

You can also, if you feel brave, test yourself on your writing caliber by inputting a sampling of your prose into The WritersDiet Test. (Needs toning!?) As for writing about zombies themselves, that's totally fine. Just apply humanization techniques for best effect.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.