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“Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
–George Orwell (1903-1950), British Writer in Politics and the English Language
English teachers often emphasize the importance of suffixes in deciphering meaning and preparing for the TOEFL. We sometimes ask our English students to study nominalizations – the words created from root words – to expand their academic vocabulary; words like evaluation, multilingual, postmodernist, transgenderism and individuality, for example, all fall under this category. But can nominalizations also cause problems and create barriers to clear thinking?
Absolutely, argues Helen Sword, in her controversial July 23, 2012 New York Times article Zombie Nouns. In fact, Sword reviews and rejects the prevalence and wisdom of using nominalizations with some poignant examples.
What are nominalizations anyway?
First, let’s step back. Sword, the author of Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2016) defines nominalizations as nouns composed by other parts of speech. For instance, if you add suffix ency to the word tend or ion to abstract, you get tendency and abstraction. Although nominalizations are heavily used by academics, lawyers, bureaucrats, and business writers, Sword argues that they can negatively influence readers too. “At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication.” The author adds that “zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes globalize becomes globalization.”
Sword, who runs a University of Auckland writing center for faculty members, criticizes academic colleagues for overusing zombie nouns. Further, Sword believes that many university teachers give their students the wrong idea that writers who use big words sound smarter than students who don’t, even if unintentionally.
Therefore, Sword refers to nominalizations as “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings” when used inappropriately.
What does it mean to inappropriately use nominalizations? Sword provides several clear examples of an excessive number of nominalizations negatively interfering in the comprehension in the length of the Times article.
“The ‘proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction’. This dense sentence includes seven nominalizations and it does not present the message in a clear way. In contrast, after replacing the majority of the nominalizations for active verbs and human subjects, Sword shows how to make that convoluted clearer to readers: “Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.”
A literary comparison
Could we have more examples? In her article, Sword also quotes George Orwell and a famous example from his classic essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he contrasts and compares a popular verse from the Ecclesiastes with his own bureaucratic version of the verse, respectively:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
–Ecclesiastes 9:11 [King James Version]
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
According to Sword, the major difference between the two passages above is that the Biblical passage “speaks to our senses and emotions with concrete nouns (sun, bread), descriptions of people (the swift, the wise, men of understanding, men of skill) and punchy abstract nouns (race, battle, riches, time, chance).” As for Orwell’s version, Sword suggests it contains a high number of vague abstractions and zombie nouns: considerations, conclusion, activities, tendency, capacity, unpredictable, phenomena, success, failure, element. Orwell’s creative version of this evocative Biblical passage illuminates the problem with verbose, bureaucratic writing.
Classroom Applications for EFL/ESL Teachers
In an attempt to bring her argument to more English teachers, Sword also created the 2012 TED-Ed video Beware of nominalizations (AKA zombie nouns). Sword notes that “a paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep” (4:24). To avoid losing the readers’ attention and to keep them entertained, Sword recommends writers – from high school students to faculty members – replace vague abstractions such as nominalizations where possible.
In my own university writing courses, I share both The Zombie Nouns article and the TED-Ed video to illuminate the dangers the excessive use of nominalizations. In fact, the examples demonstrate why it is relevant and important to improve sentences by swapping nominalizations for concrete sentences with adjectives, nouns, and active verbs. Yet I also share these materials in the next to last class as we work on the second, third, or fourth drafts of research papers. I urge students to choose “use” over “utilize”, and choose precise over ambiguous language.
Emphasize meaning over form
Surplus nominalization may be a huge problem in society at large, but it’s also a “good problem” within the context of academic and business writing courses for ESL and EFL students. I spend weeks urging students to adapt better, stronger academic verbs to replace common two-word (phrasal) verbs. We try limiting usage of not only “to be” verbs, but also “make’, “do”, and “get”. We switch from “give” to “provide”, “go back to” with “return”, and “get rid of” with “eliminate.” Moreover, I encourage students to become familiar with the Academic Word List (AWL) so that they become more familiar with key words to achieve academic success in college. Additionally, students learn to use, but not overuse, misuse, or abuse vocabulary words. They should make sure they know the meaning of fancy phrases and academic terms.
Still, Sword’s argument remains compelling. We want our students to write clear, cogent, and comprehensible essays, reviews, and research papers. Zombie nouns can often confuse and deceive more than they clarify or inform.
How do you balance the need for your English students to demonstrate a rich, robust vocabulary with concerns about “zombie nouns” and the misuse of abstractions? Do you agree with Sword’s critique of nominalizations as “zombie nouns”? Or do you believe our English students should use nominalizations to demonstrate their command of academic vocabulary? What should we teach our students in our academic writing classes?
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language. London: Horizon.
Sword, H. (2012, July 23). The Opinion Pages. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns/
Sword, H. [TED-Ed]. (2012, October 31). Beware of nominalizations (AKA zombie nouns). [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNlkHtMgcPQ