The Zombie Noun Apocalypse (and How to Fight Back)

They're not alive but not quite dead: beware the words that clog up your sentences without adding anything. Here's how to avoid the "zombie nouns" muddying your copy.

Beware of dead flat copy

Look out behind you! It’s the walking dead—dead flat copy, that is. The culprit? Nominalizations: abstract nouns formed by chains of suffixes. They’re everywhere, gobbling away at your active verbs and subjects. So grab your sawed-off shotgun and don’t let these “zombie nouns” drain the life out of your copy.

We were thrilled with Helen Sword’s Opinion piece for the NYTimes on nominalizations, which she calls “zombie nouns.” Sword defines in grammatical terms what we as commercial copywriters strike out as “wordy” or “vague.” In writing boot camp, it helps to understand the mechanics behind convention—so here’s a micro-summary of her smart article:

Nominalizations are adjectives or verbs made into nouns using suffixes such as –ity, -tion, or -ism. They serve to condense (“abstract concepts” becomes “abstractions”), but they often just deaden. Overusing them saps energy from your writing:

1. They displace real subjects, leading to long strings of abstract ideas without action or concreteness.

Untethered: Greg’s professionalism and capacity to juggle complex analytical problems have been beneficial to the firm.

Grounded: Greg benefits the firm; he is professional and can analyze multiple complex problems at once.

2. Nominalizations tend to be passive.

The decision was made to launch in May.

3. Worst of all, they make your words sound pompous. Go ahead and use them, but don’t be surprised if they are met with the equivalent of a student’s dead stare.

Luckily, it’s easy to check for nominalizations:

  • As you proofread, look for extra-long, academic words. Is there a root verb or adjective concealed within? Is there a subtle redundancy?

Passive/redundant: The discussion of this document is an analysis of the program.

Clean: We are analyzing the program.

  • You can often simplify a nominalization by adding a subject or object that clarifies the action in the sentence. Here’s the passive sentence from earlier, but with a real subject and object:

Catherine decided to launch her website in May.

  • When in doubt, you can always use software, such as WhiteSmoke or Writer’s Workbench, to help you. Or hire a professional copywriter—and get more oomph out of your writing.

 


Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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