Between life and death: Zombie nouns privilege pretentious vocabulary at the expense of simple clarity

Photo source: TedEd Screenshot

The nominalization of nouns creates abstract, dry and often misleading language

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”

-Walt Whitman (1819-1892) American poet

Sometimes, it’s fun to play with the English language and transform its adjectives, adverbs and nouns into more complex-sounding words. Playing with word forms can both emphasize a key concept and add an academic tone. Like many other English teachers, I continually emphasize the many advantages of deploying a strong academic vocabulary and maneuvering through different word forms.

This act of nominalizing words, however, can be dangerous. Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing, coined the phrase “Zombie Nouns”, which also appeared in her New York Times article. Zombie Nouns tack on suffixes like “ity,” “ism” or “tion,” instantly creating larger words–think idealism, deviation or even antidisestablishmentarianism. There’s even a TedEd on the subject based on her article that English teachers should appreciate.

Many academics and graduate students love incorporating zombie nouns into their writing because the tone becomes more intellectual, more sophisticated. Yet, sometimes, too much of a good thing can become a real problem. Zombie nouns often lose powerful verbs and ideas along the way, and sometimes what they say comes out as gibberish. Sometimes this hyper-abstract language can also encourage sloppy, vague, and distorted thinking. Sword provides several powerful examples of how nominalizations make it possible to cut out subjects, ignore context, and leave behind a rather indigestible statement like:

“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

Each italicized word, or zombie noun, is not particularly difficult on its own to understand. Nevertheless, the overall impact of all these nominalizations renders the sentence useless. Yes, students should be encouraged to manipulate language, but we want to clarify and not obscure concepts. This far too-common mistake may be a higher-level good mistake, but the consequences can be quite severe. Sword, evoking the spirit of Orwell, explores several variations of awful academic writing in her lucid 2012 “Stylish Academic Writing” which provides practical pointers and elegant expressions.


It still behooves English teachers, especially working in English for Academic Purposes programs, to demonstrate word forms to their students. How else will philosophical ideas like individuality or equality enter their vocabulary? When simpler words can be used, however, and communicating clearly supersedes sounding intellectual, zombie nouns should be avoided. Instead, juicy verbs and descriptive nouns should fill up a student’s sentence – especially if writing for non-specialists.

Sword also directs readers to a fun, potentially useful tool: Writer’s Diet. Users can paste in a writing sample and the test generates a number based on how “fit” or “flabby” the writing is. A side note–this article, minus Sword’s nominalized sentence, scored lean or fit in all categories. This site seems particularly valuable for English language learners and young academics.

How do you teach both teach academic writing and avoid excessive reliance on zombie nouns?

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