‘Zombie nouns’: You love them, don’t you?

Whether it’s a peer-reviewed article, a funding proposal, or a syllabus, no one reads academic writing for the fun of it. Researchers and other faculty members tend to write for each other, which is to say, for people who get paid to read each other’s stuff. And for students, who, sadly, pay dearly for the privilege.

But just because most or all of your audience is under some degree of obligation to read what you write, that doesn’t give you license to be obscure, muddy and uninspiring. If there’s anything that can beat the life out of academic writing, it’s the overuse of nominalizations.  If that’s a new word to you, don’t feel bad.  Great numbers of people probably came across it for the first time when reading The New York Times website this morning:

“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. …

“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.

Isn’t it great to be lumped together with lawyers, bureaucrats and zombies? By the way, I added the emphasis at the end, partly because it’s a good point and partly because some of us probably picked up the same idea the same way when we were students.

Writing is hard, and not just for you — it’s hard for everyone who cares about doing it well.  We can all use as much good advice as we can get. And this Times column qualifies.

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