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?