Global Lingo Blog

Halloween language: the zombie nouns

While people celebrating Halloween have fun dressing up as zombies, I had fun watching a video about another kind of zombies: the zombie nouns. This is what Hellen Sword from the University of Auckland calls nominalisations. What follows is a transcript of her TED lesson, which was based on a piece she wrote for the New York Times.

Beware of nominalisations (AKA zombie nouns)

Take an adjective such as implacable, or a verb like proliferate, or even a noun like crony, and add a suffix, such as -ity, -tion, -ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, proliferation, cronyism! Sounds impressive, right? WRONG! You’ve just unleashed a flesh-eating zombie! Nouns made from other parts of speech are called nominalisations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats, and business writers. I call them ’zombie nouns‘ because they consume the living, they cannibalise active verbs, they suck the life blood from adjectives, and they substitute abstract entities for human beings.

Here’s an example:

Huh? This sentence contains no fewer than seven nominalisations! Yet it fails to tell us WHO is doing WHAT? When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes trend, abstraction becomes abstract), then add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalisations – has been allowed to remain standing.

At their best, nominalisations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication.

To get a feeling of how the zombie nouns work, we release a few of them into a lively sentence and watch them sap all its energy. George Orwell played this game in his essay “Politics in the English Language”. He started with a well-known verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:

Now here is Orwell’s Modern English version:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success of 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.

The Bible passage speaks to our senses and emotions through concrete nouns, descriptions of people, and punchy abstract nouns such as race, battle, riches, time, chance. Not a zombie among them. Orwell’s satirical translation, on the other hand, is teaming with nominalisations and other vague abstractions. The zombies have taken over. The humans have fled the village.

Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon generated packs and swallow every noun, verb and adjective in sight. So globe becomes global, becomes globalise, becomes globalisation!

The grandfather of all nominalisations, antidisestablishmentsarianism, contains at least two verbs, three adjectives, and six other nouns inside its distended belly.

A paragraph heavily populated by nominalisations will send your readers straight to sleep. Rescue them from the Zombie Apocalypse with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete and clearly structured.

You want your sentences to live, not to join the living dead.

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