Zombie Nouns: Or: Don’t add clarification to your writing. Clarify your writing.

Helen Sword’s NYT Opinionator essay on “Zombie Nouns” is one of the most profound short essays on writing that I’ve read since at least college. Maybe even high school. I don’t know if that says more about my writing ability or Sword’s:

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:

Read the rest of Sword’s essay here. It’s really one of the best practical essays on writing I’ve read in awhile.

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at blog.danwin.com.