Words to watch for: zombie nouns

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

In her New York Times essay and its associated TED talk, Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” — that is, nouns that contains within them shorter verbs, adjectives, or other nouns — “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Academics, we’re told, love zombie nouns; that may be because academics are frequently concerned with abstract concepts, or it may be because we all like the idea of a reinvigorated, reanimated, living dead thing (can you say, “revise and resubmit”?).

A nominalization or “zombie noun” can often be recognized by an ending such as:

  • -able
  • -ance
  • -ation
  • -ency
  • -ian
  • -ion
  • -ism
  • -ity
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -sion

Zombie nouns are a problem when they render your writing more abstract than it needs to be. So how can you talk about an abstract concept — say, participation, or perception, or relationships — without letting the zombie hoards deaden your writing?

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Bring clarity by objectifying your language

mouse

The mental movie of a mouse cowering the corner of a cage that has another mouse in it gets chunked into ‘social avoidance.’ You can’t blame the neuroscientist for thinking this way. She’s seen the movie thousands of times; she doesn’t need to hit the PLAY button in her visual memory and watch the critters quivering every time she talks about whether her experiment worked. But we do need to watch them, at least the first time, to appreciate what actually happened.  (Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. Viking, 2014: p. 71)

Steven Pinker argues that academics like our neuroscientist, above, tend to use abstract language in their writing because they “chunk” together discrete events — the many instances of mice cowering and quivering — into broader categories like “social avoidance.” Yet, as Pinker also notes, many readers won’t have done this same “chunking,” or will have different conceptual “chunks” of knowledge, and so will need to “watch” the mouse avoid its peer at least once in a piece of writing in order to follow the writer’s chain of thought.

So when and how should academic writers write about “social avoidance,” and when should they describe the actions of the mouse?

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