Nominalizations Are Zombie Nouns

Helen Sword

Helen Sword has a great article over at the New York Times about the use of nominalizations – which she says ” cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

She goes on to say that she has “seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.”

I fall into this trap in my work as a Technical Writer for a software company. I’m sorely tempted to use big, fancy words and long, complex sentences to prove to  my employers that I am worth my salary. But my job requires me to explain technical concepts in the clearest manner possible to ordinary, non-technical  readers. I can’t afford to muddy my message with unnecessary over-complication.

That’s why Helen Sword’s article is a reminder to me – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Simple, richly noun-verb driven prose conveys meaning and clarity like a Swarovski crystal champagne flute struck with a silver spoon.

Read more from Helen’s article:

“Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. 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:

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

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

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


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


Nominalizations Are Zombie Nouns –


2 thoughts on “Nominalizations Are Zombie Nouns

  1. I love nominalisations, passive voice, and adverbs; ergo, I won’t be dissuaded by any of your propaganda from their deliberate and shameless utilisation in my works of fiction.

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