Monday, April 8, 2013

Helen Sword on “zombie nouns”

In several posts (for example, here), I have discussed the uninhabited clause,* a clause with a non-human subject. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause. If you overuse uninhabited clauses, you will tire your readers. To stay interested, most readers need to see a human subject once in a while.

In an excellent piece in The New York Times, Helen Sword (pictured) describes an extremely tiring form of non-human subject: the zombie noun.

“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...”

The Takeaway: Learn how to avoid using “zombie nouns.” Read the article here.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.


  1. What a brilliant piece! I wonder what Dr. Sword would have to say about German, where you can make almost any adjective into a noun simply by putting "das" in front of it ("Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.") When not in the hands of great poets and trained philosophers, this sort of thing can lead to much obfuscation, and even then . . .