Skip to content

Helen Sword’s “Zombie Nouns”

If you work as an academic or a professional in a technical environment, I recommend “Zombie Nouns,” Helen Sword’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times online.

Sword, who teaches at the University of Auckland, attacks nominalizations such as proliferation, formation, implacability, and heteronormativity. These are words made from verbs (proliferate and form), adjectives (implacable), and other nouns. She calls these nominalizations “zombie nouns” because, in her words, they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

In my business writing classes, I meet professionals who are stuck with nominalizations as part of their everyday technical vocabulary: synchronization, application, localization, integration, distribution, authorization, availability, functionality, procurement, enhancement, and engagement. Because they have to live with the words their colleagues use and understand, it’s important for them to slim down the rest of their writing. Sword’s recommendations can help.

Along with changing nominalizations to verbs and adjectives when possible, Sword recommends using active verbs and bringing people into sentences to tell a story. Compare her two sample sentences, the second of which is a vivid version of the first:

“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.” [Italics are hers’]

“Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.”

Sword offers a “Writer’s Diet Test” to determine the flabbiness of your writing. Copy a passage of at least 100 words into the test. An excerpt I tested received an excellent grade of “Lean.” But two paragraphs of mine in early draft form earned the low grade “Flabby” because I had used more linking verbs than active ones. When I tighten those verbs, I will test the paragraphs again to get my writing certified “Lean”!

I recommend both “Zombie Nouns” and the Writer’s Diet Test. I would love to hear about your writing fitness scores.


Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Helen Sword’s “Zombie Nouns””

Comments are closed.