Beware the Zombies

Image by Toni Etyang from Pixabay

I’m supposed to be writing a review of Steven Pinker’s Sense and Style, but like the student who waited until the last minute to read the book, I’m not in a position to write a full review—yet. With Halloween on the horizon, and Pinker’s reference to zombie nouns, I thought a blog on those might be more apropos than trying to bluff my way through a full book review.

I am not a fan of horror films or literature (with the exception of Stephen King), so my knowledge of zombies is limited. Suffice to say that for our purposes the Merriam-Webster definition of a will-less, speechless human that’s died and been reanminated by supernatural powers works as well as anything—especially the will-less, speechless part.

When grammarians speak of zombie nouns, they are referring to words that usually appear as verbs or adjectives, but through some contortion have been turned into nouns. And like the zombies of literature—they are speechless and will-less. 

Helen Sword says nominalizations “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.” I like the visuals in her description. Although the problem is more pronounced in nonfiction writing, fiction writers ought also to be on the lookout for verbs or adjectives that function as nouns.

Check the Suffix

Clues to a word’s function can often be found in the suffix. Telltale signs of a noun are the following suffixes: ance, ment, ion, ation, ing, ist, ity, cy.

  • Avoid becomes avoidance
  • Advance becomes advancement
  • Exclude becomes exclusion
  • Standard becomes standardized
  • Contribute becomes or contribution

Verbs—especially active verbs—are the lifeblood of a sentence. Turning them into nouns drains the life from your writing Click To Tweet.  As a result, we fail to communicate in the clearest, most direct manner. Nominalization does two things that muddy writing:

  • Hides who and what
  • Smothers verbs

Sentences must contain a subject and a verb—the who and what. Note in these examples how difficult it is to decipher who is doing what.

It was the intention of the supervisor to eliminate all overtime pay.

We expect to find the subject at or near the front of a sentence, usually followed closely by the verb. But here, we’re halfway into the sentence before landing on the who—the supervisor. The action is even less obvious.

If we move the subject closer to the opening and decipher what the supervisor does we recast as follows:

The supervisor intended to eliminate all overtime pay.

The noun, intention, reverts to its verb form, intent. Subject and verb appear together near the beginning of the sentence and its meaning is clear.

In the following example, locating the subject is even more challenging.

Negligence on the part of the hospital workers was the reason for the failure of the dialysis machine.

If we look for who, we might think hospital workers is the subject.

But the point of the sentence is that the machine failed. Ah—there’s the subject and verb. Now, we want to know why.

The dialysis machine failed due to the worker’s negligence.

That empty noun failure becomes the active verb failed. We can also exchange the noun negligence for a shorter noun form, neglect, and tighten the sentence even further.

If suffixes are clues to zombie nouns, smothered verbs are another indicator.

Mercy Hospital made the decision to close its maternity ward.

The subject is clear; the verb less so. Did the hospital make something? No. Mercy Hospital decided to close its maternity ward. Look for verb phrases that cover or delay the true verb and eliminate them.

Empty, needless nouns leave your reader wondering who did what. Always keep your subject and verb in mind and exterminate the zombies.

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