The Redemption of Zombie Nouns

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Helen Sword, "Zombie Nouns", The New York Times 7/23/2012:

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?

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.

Indeed, strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto an approved part-of-speech mixture. Having learned from Strunk & White to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs", the apprentice writer is now confronted with a new dogma damning many nouns, along with a reminder that only "active verbs" are free of sinful taint.

The theological rationale for Ms. Sword's edict adds to the confusion, because it focuses on the process of morphological derivation rather than on the resulting lexical category:

Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes global becomes globalize becomes globalization. The grandfather of all nominalizations, antidisestablishmentarianism, potentially contains at least two verbs, three adjectives and six other nouns.

So if we add -al to the infected noun globalization, making the adjective globalizational, do we remove the taint? Or do we make it worse? The first paragraph of Ms. Sword's essay ends with an emphatic use of the adjective impressive, formed by adding -ive to the verb impress. That must be OK, since she did it; but she's just told us in the previous sentence that implacable+ity, calibrate+tion [sic] and crony+ism are cannibal zombies. What's a poor pilgrim write+er to do?

Let's take Ms. Sword literally, worrying only about the potentially undead status of nouns, and relying on an authoritative dictionary to identify which of them are derived from other parts of speech. The results are indeed horrifying, in the manner of those paranoid-nightmare movies where it turns out that all of your closest friends and relations have been secretly infected by the zombies (or vampires or pod people or whatever Others). Here's Ms. Sword's own last paragraph:

For an operationalized assessment of your own propensity for nominalization dependence (translation: to diagnose your own zombie habits), try pasting a few samples of your prose into the Writer’s Diet test. A score of “flabby” or “heart attack” in the noun category indicates that 5 percent or more of your words are nominalizations.

Leaving out assessment, propensity, nominalization, and dependence, there are 13 nouns in these two sentences: habits, samples, prose, writer, diet, test, score, heart, attack, noun, category, words, nominalizations. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, only three of these (heart, noun, words) are not derived from verbs or adjectives.

For example, habit comes from the Latin verb habere; or in more detail

< Old French habit, abit (12th cent. in Littré) = Provençal abit, habit, Italian abito; < Latin habitus, noun of action (u- stem), < habēre to have, refl. to be constituted, to be.

And sample comes from the Latin verb eximere:

< Old French example, exemple, a refashioning (after Latin) of earlier essample (see asaumple n.) < Latin exemplum , < exem- , eximĕre to take out: see exempt adj. and n. The primary sense is thus ‘something taken out, a sample n., specimen’.

So about 80% of the nouns in Ms. Sword's best attempt at zombie-free writing are Secret Zombies. Well, some of them are not so secret: test and attack are simply zero-derived deverbal nouns within the context of modern English.

Anyhow, what should we conclude? That Zombie Nouns are redeemed and rejoin the living world when Ms. Sword loses track of their etymology? Or that she hasn't framed her writing advice very carefully or coherently?



56 Comments

  1. Mike said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    I read the article, which is really more a standard denunciation of jargon-laden academic prose. Her article might have been less peevish had she pointed out the displeasure and pretentiousness in needlessly jargonish writing, rather than blaming the words themselves.

    And yes, lots of "O tempora…" comments, inevitably.

  2. neminem said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    I do get what the article is -trying- to say, though. There's a big difference between morphological morphing of words for the sake of usefulness (one of the things I love so much about English, its richness in that area), and adding a bunch of needless verbiage in the desire to sound intelligent (or, in the case of formal business writing, from what I can tell, to be intentionally incoherent.) It's pretty easy to spot the difference, though.

    [(myl) Is it? It was certainly not easy for Ms. Sword to describe the difference. Someone following the article's advice literally will embrace lots of "needless verbiage" while shunning many perfectly appropriate and useful choices. And someone who really finds it "easy to spot the difference" doesn't need the advice in the first place.]

  3. Mike said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    @Neminem, one often hears this comment about English, but is this an inherent trait of English or a reflection on its very diverse use? I'm asking an empirical question, not criticizing your comment. I would have thought a polysynthetic language or agglutinative language would go toe-to-toe with English on that front.

  4. Paul said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    I submitted a couple of samples to the "Writer's Diet" website linked in the last paragraph of her post, some of my own and some passages from famous speeches and novels. The results are pretty absurd.

    The first thing I noticed was that I was penalized for excessive adverb use because my paragraph happened to contain several instances of the word "family," which is actually a noun, of course.

    Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech gets rated "flabby" for having too many adjectives and too many this/that/theres. Hemingway is rated "needs toning" for having too many verbs and prepositions. Obama's inauguration speech "needs toning" for too many this/that/theres (including theres that introduce subordinate clauses) and nominalizations (including "nation," which must be a nominalization due to the -tion ending, right?)

    I know this is just a poorly written algorithm and not the gist of her language advice, but I'm pretty sure my first python part of speech tagger was at least as good as this.

    [(myl) Thanks -- I didn't have the heart to try the "Writer's Diet" website myself. From your description, it seems that the quality of the software is similar to the quality of the usage advice behind it: incoherent and carelessly implemented.]

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    What I love about the word nominalization is that it is one. A nominalization, that is. In fact, when you dig all the way down through the different layers of morphological derivation (nom+inal+ize+ation), the root morpheme is itself a noun.

  6. Judith Strauser said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    I stopped reading the article & closed the tab with irritation yesterday after I hit the part where, shortly after urging us to replace those pesky so-called zombie nouns with the verbs they come from, the author ragged on "heteronormativity". Admittedly jargonny (sic), but what parent verb would the author advise I use to construct a paraphrase expressing what it does? Ridiculous enough to pulverize any incentive left to read the rest.

  7. djw said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    The writer's diet says her last paragraph is flabby, too.

  8. djw said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    Huh. I just pulled a recent sample of my own writing and found that my first paragraph alone was "flabby," but a longer sample (including that paragraph) was "lean." The only item not in the "lean" range was verbs, which Ms. Sword seems to think are preferable to nouns. Go figure.

  9. Layra said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    Even if it is a diatribe against jargon, "operationalized". Hopefully used ironically? Maybe?

    [(myl) It's clear in context that the whole phrase "operationalized assessment of your own propensity for nominalization dependence" is intended ironically, as an example of What Not To Do. But "operationalized" is not a nominalization, although she clearly means us to scorn it. And would e.g. "an efficacious inquest into your own penchant for display of non-atomic nominals" be any better, although it contains no "nominalizations" by her (implicit) definition? ]

  10. Jonathon said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    I'm not sure it's really fair to look at the pre-English etymologies of words. Sword's analysis and reasoning may be muddled, but I think it's clear that she's talking about words formed with English derivational morphology. Joseph Williams made this point much better in his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

    [(myl) But her Horrible Examples include propensity, whose derivational source is synchronically opaque, and do not include attack and test, where the derivational link is clear. I imagine that what she really has in mind is an ill-considered amalgam of concerns about Greek- and Latin-derived learned vocabulary, derivational complexity, low frequency, abstractness, complex noun phrases in place of tensed clauses, and so on.]

  11. Adam said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    Dang. When I saw the title, I thought it would be about bringing good but "dead" nouns back into use.

  12. JeffE said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    Adjective < Anglo-Norman adjectyf and Middle French adjectif . . . < classical Latin adiect-, past participial stem of adiicere ADJECT v. + -īvus -IVE suffix.

    (Cough.)

  13. Erik Zyman said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    To a large extent, I agree with Jonathon: much of her displeasure seems to be directed at nouns that 1) are nominalizations synchronically (i.e., internal to Modern English) and 2) differ audibly from their bases. But even so, epistemology doesn’t qualify, and probably capacity in the relevant sense doesn't either, whereas failure does, and I'd say success does too.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    My impression, she hasn't bothered to truly properly think about the issues she writes about. It's not just that she hasn't presented her ideas clearly and coherently. There doesn't seem to be any clear and coherent idea.

    She does seem, in actuality, to only be against nominalizations (can we call them nounings?) that involve suffixes. Or, perhaps better said, she doesn't seem to have a problem with nounings that don't involve suffixes.

    And does anyone actually get why she calls them zombie nouns? I don't at all follow her logic on that. Then again, why should that be any more logical than the rest of what she writes.

  15. rheiser said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    It bothers me more when people verbize nouns.

  16. Jon Weinberg said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    Yes — while it's fine to criticize long-winded and puffed-up prose, the problem with the writing Sword criticizes isn't that it includes nouns with recognizable roots. It's poor style for a writer to use the phrase "discursive formation" to mean "sentence" — but the problem with that phrase is that it's needlessly long-winded and opaque, not the mere fact that "formation" has "form" in it. Geologists wouldn't be any more economical or elegant if they talked more about "rock structures" and less about "rock formations". (Oops — I said "writing" and "writer". And "geologist". Flabby, flabby, flabby.)

  17. Chris said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    Sadly, I don't think this is just Helen Sword. When I became a US government employee last year, I was required to take a course in "plain language". One of the things that we were taught, sure to send Geoff Pullum into paroxysms, was that a noun formed from a verb is "a passive", and that we should rephrase a sentence containing such a nominalization in the "active voice" by using the verb form instead and getting rid of the nominalization.

    So, it is true both that nominalizations are deprecated by the plain language movement as a whole, and labeled as a type of passive voice (I think they may have called them "hidden passives").

  18. Nathan said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    Good writing style is just not algorithmically checkable. But people are looking for easy, black-and-white rules for good writing. They have been for a long time. And people like Sword and Strunk/White are always perfectly happy to make money pretending such rules exist.

  19. Andy Averill said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    Why did the Times even print this piece? It's not as if she's adding anything to the sum total of human knowledge. Other than the colorful phrase zombie nouns, it's hard to see what she's saying that hasn't already been said a gazillion times (and is just as unhelpful now as it was the first time.) She even drags out that Orwell passage again which, IIRC, is already in Strunk and White.

    The frustrating thing for me is that I really do enjoy intelligent discussions of good vs bad writing. Surely the Times could find somebody who has something useful to say on the subject, instead of subjecting us to yet another woefully misinformed screed.

  20. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    This analysis of that last paragraph is a bit off: it's missing "translation", which is obviously a nominalization, too. So only 3 of 14 (not 13) pass.

  21. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

    And does anyone actually get why she calls them zombie nouns?

    Her logic, I think, is that you take a perfectly good verb then "kill" it and "bring it back" as a noun. To give her due credit, while this is manifestly nonsensical, it is an excellent piece of rhetoric. It articulates the unacceptability of her personal bete noir with such clarity that one quite forgets to ask what is actually wrong with it.

  22. Igor said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    The Gettysburg Address: FLABBY
    Jabberwocky: LEAN

    [(myl) Declaration of Independence: FLABBY. First few paragraphs of The Great Gatsby: FLABBY. The blurb for Helen Sword's book Stylish Writing: FLABBY.]

  23. Chad Nilep said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    @Chris
    I wonder if that US government course on plain language is a descendent of the clear-writing program Roger Shuy and Jana Stanton developed for the Social Security Administration. If it is, I think I will be slightly depressed.

  24. The Ridger said,

    July 26, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    @Chris: Nominalization results (often) in longer sentences with fewer clauses. (The destruction of the city caused hardship vs The enemy destroyed the city. This caused hardship). I don't know for sure, but this may be what's getting the 'passive' label…

    Anyway, lots of people like short sentences and seem to think they're snappier and more direct.

  25. Circe said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    On the "Writers' Diet" website, the following paragraphs described Ms Sword's latest book of the same name:

    Elegant data and ideas deserve elegant expression, argues Helen Sword in this lively guide to academic writing. For scholars frustrated with disciplinary conventions, and for specialists who want to write for a larger audience but are unsure where to begin, here are imaginative, practical, witty pointers that show how to make articles and books a pleasure to read — and to write.

    So the self-reference loving computer scientist in me took the obvious step of running the advertisement through the product. The results (on the "basic" version):

    Overall: Flabby
    Verbs: fit and trim
    Nouns: Lean
    prepositions: flabby
    adjectives/adverbs: flabby
    it, this, that, there: fit and trim

  26. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:06 am

    A weird kind of nominalization I find in my students is that they take Latin- or Greek-derived adjectives that already have noun forms and they English them by adding -ness. So amicalness instead of amity and charitableness instead of charity. I even once had a student who wrote 'equalness.' There are heaps of these. Some of them arguably have slightly different meanings than the more standard form, but not usually.

    Nouns turned into verbs don't bother me. I love it when Shakespeare has a character tell the Duke of Venice that Angelo "dukes it well" in his absence. But I was disconcerted once when a student wrote that customs tend to evolutionize over time.

  27. Eugene said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    Make not nouns from verbs nor verbs from nouns.
    You're allowed to make adjectives, I guess, but use neither too many nor too few. Short sentences are bad, as are long. Don't split infinitives because splitting things isn't polite. Don't end sentences with prepositions just because everybody else does it. If everybody else jumped off a bridge, would you do so too? (You can end clauses with prepositions and nobody will notice unless they're at the end of a sentence).
    Most of all, avoid passive words/verbs/tenses/voice/sentences – whatever, I'm not quite sure what it is or why it's wrong, but I know it's bad because somebody told me so.
    The general principle is that everything that is easy and casual and natural is wrong, and we need to work very hard to suppress those urges.

  28. Nathan Myers said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:22 am

    Is she just cashing in on the momentary cultural popularityprevalence of zombies? Zombies are in pitched battle with vampires for public attention. Werewolves, as always, rate barely an afterthought. Witchery is in eclipse, and ghosts are fading.

  29. etv13 said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 5:02 am

    Doesn't she really mean "Frankenstein nouns"? They're not a whole thing that's died and been brought back to a semblance of life, but (by her account, not mine) a reanimated composite. Or maybe Frankenstein (or rather, his monster) is a special case of a zombie?

    [(myl) The metaphor seems to be that nominalizations "suck the life out of" the rest of the words in a sentence, turning them into zombies as well. Though it feels good at first, this plot falls apart when you think it through, since it would imply that after contact with zombie in (say) "the development of compensation mechanisms", words like "the" and "of" would later spread the contagion to healthy nouns in (say) "the queen of England".]

  30. Chris said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 6:19 am

    @Chad: Let's hope not. There is a whole website for plain language at http://www.plainlanguage.gov. If you look at page 29 of the guidelines at that site there's a section titled "don't turn verbs into nouns". At least Shuy and Stanton aren't in the references on that page.

    @TheRidger: actually, based on my instructor's view, the nominalizations were labeled "passive" because they "hide agency". A sentence like "This regulation may require development of new equipment" was to be avoided because one does not know who will have to develop the equipment (although regulation also leaves vague who is regulating who,). As often seen on LL, many people think "passive" means "vague with respect to agency", so many so that I hope this meaning is now included in standard dictionaries, although it does not enter my idiolect in that sense…

  31. Pete said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    The underlying problem is the ridiculous idea that good writing can be guaranteed by following a few simple rules. The Writer's Diet test is a great example of this: good writing is so simple to define that it can be automatically checked by a computer program!

    It's compounded by the fact that the people peddling this idea often have only a very feeble grasp of the metalinguistic concepts and vocabulary required to explain the rules (hence their habit of calling everything "passive").

    This latter problem is in some measure the fault of linguists, who've failed to make the world understand their subject.

  32. Edith Maxwell said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Matthew 7:14. Thank you for making me look that up!

  33. Robert Morris said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    It looks like she's also criticizing the fact that, much like the oft misunderstood passive voice, it allows the writer to be vague about agency (just interpreting her—not making this claim myself, though I see parallels between the two). Of course, she's conflating this with a variety of other issues: inventing execssively affixed words when a perfectly suitable word already exists, using indirect or exessive wording like "may be" when you know it "is," and so on. And she's blaming nominalizations themselves (while failing to understand what they really are, much like how others who blame the passive often fail to accurately understand what they're describing) when the real problem is just bad writing.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    I think the origin of this condemnation of nominalizations is (I mean "condemning nominalizations originated with") Follett on the "noun plague". You can see part of his discussion here, at least if you're in America.

  35. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    "And she's blaming nominalizations themselves. . . when the real problem is just bad writing."

    Nominalizations don't confuse people. People confuse people.

  36. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    I see that some famous pieces have been put to the test and found to be flabby. Using the same test it seems that Churchill was a pretty poor speech writer…

  37. kmurri said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    [Preparing to get squashed.]

    I'm a tech writer and have spent a fair bit of time trying to help the average cube-farmer to write more clearly. My sympathy is with the author. The rule she expounds doesn't hold up to careful grammatical scrutiny, but if it helps one person think about their word choices? I'm all for it.

  38. Gregory Bryce said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    I thought Ms. Sword's column gave good advice and good examples of words that make for bureaucratic, dense writing.

    The professional linguists who post and debate columns on Language Log often strike me as arching their backs and hissing whenever someone outside the tribe has the audacity to comment on the English language.

    [(myl) It's true, we're just like the biomedical researchers who get all catty when someone "outside the tribe" has the audacity to sell you pills to increase your child's IQ, or crystal bracelets to cure cancer, or ... ]

  39. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    I noticed a couple things about words that get flagged at the Writer's Diet Test website that don't seem to be part what they are actually judging. First, forms of "to be" in progressive tenses are marked. Second, "that" as a connecting word (whatever the grammatical term), which, given the words it's paired with (it, this, there), does not see to be the issue. They are flagging it as a demonstrative pronoun even where it's not one. Any valid computerized grammar analysis would have to differentiate between those usages.

  40. James Kabala said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    I respectfully disagree with kmurri and Mr. Bryce. Many articles of this type are ill-informed but harmless, but this article, by trying to anathametize such ordinary words as formation, indication, tendency, pomposity, participation, ambiguity, conclusion, activity, and even failure (!), would actively harm the English language if its principles were adopted.

  41. Gregory Bryce said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    To James Kabala:

    I certainly would have to agree that any suggestion one should NEVER use "such ordinary words as formation, indication, tendency, pomposity, participation, ambiguity, conclusion, activity, and even failure" would be way off base.

    And though I have not tried it, it's clear from the comments above that the Writer's Diet Test is a seriously defective analytical tool, and therefore harmful.

    The thrust of Ms. Sword's argument still strikes me as good advice.

    (Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada)

  42. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    But what is the the thrust of her argument?

  43. Andy Averill said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    @Victoria Simmons, it's certainly not just your students who do that, and Merriam-Webster accepts charitableness as a word. Not charitability, unfortunately, which is the logical next step.

    Perhaps charity and charitableness have pretty much the same meaning, but that's not always the case. Reason doesn't mean the same as reasonableness (which is the only word I can think of whose only stress comes five syllables from the end).

  44. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    I don't think charitableness and charity have the same meaning. Charitableness is an attitude (that's how I would understand it), charity is concrete giving (or most commonly, in my experience, anyway).

    Though in the other two examples Victoria Simmons gave I agree that the new word has the same meaning as the old word.

  45. Vince G. said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

    "Why does reading this paragraph feel like trudging through deep mud? The secret lies at its grammatical core: Participation is. . . . It is. . . . Peripherality suggests. . . . Ambiguity must be connected. Every single sentence has a zombie noun or a pronoun as its subject, coupled with an uninspiring verb. Who are the people? Where is the action? What story is being told?"

    I would venture to suggest that the secret lies in Ms. Sword's inability to grasp the point of the passage. Seriously, "people", "action", "story"? It's social science, not a corporate marketing strategy for heaven's sake. Yes, it's certainly the case that academics have a tendency to write dense prose, but sacrificing hard content to measure up to meaningless ideas of prescriptive style is precisely the wrong way to go about remedying that. Let's also bear in mind Judith Butler's pertinent reminder that the point of academia is very much to push up against the boundaries of understanding: in subjects which deal directly with social reality this has to mean writing things that are difficult to understand.

    And this woman is lecturing people on "stylish academic writing"!

  46. David Morris said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    I think that if you overlook her huffery and puffery, her core contention is valid: "At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas … At their worst, they impede clear communication … A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep." I'd almost agree with her next sentence: "Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete [and] clearly structured." I agree with "vigorous", "concrete" and "clearly structured", but wouldn't contend that such sentences are necessarily verb-driven.

    I followed the link to the Williams book, and noticed that one reader's review is "Great and effective advise on how to write well".

  47. Rubrick said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

    If "antidiestablishmentarianism" is truly the grandfather of such nouns, then things have clearly been improving over the years. Its descendants are not nearly so excessive.

  48. Sili said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

    @Victoria Simmons, it's certainly not just your students who do that, and Merriam-Webster accepts charitableness as a word. Not charitability, unfortunately, which is the logical next step.

    As a non-native speaker my first guess was for "charitability" as well. I had to think "Oh – 'charity' is a word, yes". I assume I use "charitable" more, so making a derivation from that word is easier than trying to dig "charity" out of my memory.

    Similarly I end at "normality" more often than "normalcy".

  49. mahir256 said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 1:09 am

    Sometimes I feel that people should get back to using Anglo-Saxon derived words (which would help rectify part of the problem Helen is describing), and if there is _something_ which can only be expressed in Latin/Greek, then the whole passage should be rewritten in Latin/Greek.

  50. Ellen K. said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 7:01 am

    But many words with roots from Latin and Classical Greek don't exist in those languages, other than as modern additions. "Globalization", if it had a cognate back in the days of the Roman empire, would have meant something like "making into a ball shape".

  51. chris said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    and if there is _something_ which can only be expressed in Latin/Greek

    There isn't, if you're creative enough. For the definitive demonstration, google "Uncleftish Beholding".

    But I don't think anyone would suggest that anyone ought to try to write like that *all the time*. Plenty of words of Latin or Greek origin are well established in our language and confuse nobody.

  52. Gabriel Burns said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    I read the title of this post wrong. I thought it said "zombie nuns". I must confess I was mildly disappointed when I discovered my error.

  53. Steve Hayes said,

    August 1, 2012 @ 12:10 am

    I was trying to see what was "theological" about Ms Sword's rationale, and couldn't see it. Did she claim to be speaking on behalf of God?

  54. Patrick said,

    December 2, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    Williams makes the point, in Style, that the nominalization is not itself the problem; the problem is the nominalization's location. When a writer is introducing new information at the beginning of a sentence, he argues, he or she should avoid using a nominalization. One cannot diagnose clarity by simply counting words ending in -ion. It matters where those words are placed in a sentence.

  55. Brom said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    Patrick, you beat me to it. The discussion about The Writer's Diet and about "Zombie Nouns" got me thinking again about other things I've read that recommended avoiding nominalizations, and the first one that leaped to mind was Joseph Williams' "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace."

    What struck me, when I looked back at it, was the difference in approach. Where Helen Sword vilified nominalizations as blood-sucking zombies (really, mixing her undead creatures metaphor), I thought Williams did a better job of explaining why nominalizations can be problematic. (The problem comes from the fact that using nominalizations tends to shift the actor out of the subject and the action out of the verb, which can make the writing not only less interesting but harder to follow.)

  56. Come on baby, verb my noun* | Word Geeks said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    [...] Nouns" by Helen Sword in The New York Times "The Redemption of Zombie Nouns" on Language Log About verbing and nouning, on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog Ben Yagoda on [...]

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