Helen Sword cuts through (pun intended) the corporate-speak that continues to encroach upon our literature, particularly in business and academia, with a plea to kill our “zombie nouns”. Her latest book is “Stylish Academic Writing”.
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:
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.
At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have 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.
In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track. In her book “Darwin’s Plots,” the literary historian Gillian Beer supplements abstract nouns like evidence, relationships and beliefs with vivid verbs (rebuff, overturn, exhilarate) and concrete nouns that appeal to sensory experience (earth, sun, eyes):
Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.
Her subject matter – scientific theories – could hardly be more cerebral, yet her language remains firmly anchored in the physical world.