Are zombie nouns sucking the lifeblood from your text?

I don’t know what to think of zombies.

Nothing wrong with a bit of horror. But zombies don’t scare me.

Too far-fetched for me, I guess.


Today, I wanted to talk about nominalisations. These are verbs that are turned into nouns.

To improve a bridge becomes the improvement, or the improving of a bridge. To finance a theatre show becomes the financing of a theatre show.

When you use a lot of nominalisations, your text becomes distant and boring.

Helen Sword – a professor who writes about academic writing – calls them zombie nouns. Because,

[…] they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.


Sword gives a nice example in a TED video:

The proliferation of nominalisations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency towards pomposity and abstraction.

No less than seven zombie nouns in one sentence.

Her alternative?

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalisations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Suddenly the sentence comes to life, and it becomes clear who does what. The sentence has a concrete subject (writers), meaningful verbs (overload, sound) and a concrete direct object (sentences).

Much better.

Did I miss a great zombie movie? Let me know!