Is it too early to talk about zombies? Halloween is still about a month away, but Home Depot is selling creepy inflatable lawn creatures. In addition, Starbucks has its pumpkin spice latte (the McRib of hot drinks) back on the menu. Surely it’s zombie season.
I love a good rebranding effort, and that’s pretty much what writer Helen Sword did with nominalizations. A nominalization is a noun made from other parts of speech. Picture the leg of a verb or the neck of an adjective sewn onto a suffix like “-ism,” “-ity” or “-tion.” What you end up with is a new noun. Sword calls nominalizations “zombie words” because, as she writes, “they consume the living, they cannibalize active verbs, they suck the lifeblood from adjectives, and they substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
So, what are some examples of zombie nouns, and are they lurking in your basement, waiting to eat your kids? Tune in tonight at 10 p.m. after the seven-day forecast.
I’m kidding, of course. These words make sentences obscure and hard to understand. Take the word “negotiation,” for example. This word, a noun, was formed from the verb “negotiate” and the suffix “-tion.” “The two parties engaged in a negotiation” is much more abstract than “The two parties negotiated.” Do you see the differentiation?
“Writers who tend to overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract,” writes Sword, who has the coolest last name since Danny Machete. OK, I made up Danny Machete, but you could bet both authors write some sharp prose.
Zombie nouns have taken over the souls of well-meaning words, leaving us with bloated terms including causation, annoyance, collusion, formulate and implementation. When these words are used sparingly and intentionally, they can stand out; however, the amalgamation and confluence of these integrated synchronizations result in the obfuscation and overutilization of unnecessary, annoying utterances. Plus, you sound like a snooty jerk.
In my opinion, the two quickest ways to suck the life out of writing are to 1) use the passive voice and 2) unleash an entire horde of zombie nouns into your work. While I do aim for a specific word count in each of my essays, I also keep Ernest Hemingway’s advice in mind:
“A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous. The greatest writers have the gift of brilliant brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars and competent stylists.”
In other words: be brief, and then be done. Look out for zombies.