Zombies are big in movies and TV these days. But zombie nouns have been the bane of good writers for much longer. We know zombies as dead or inanimage objects come to life. Zombie nouns, also known as abstract nouns, such the life out of good writing. It happens when parts of speech–most oftern verbs and adjectives–get turned into nouns. We call this nominalization.
It’s an easy enough process. You simply add a suffix like ion, ate, or ize to an adjective or verb and it becomes a noun.
- The verb complete becomes the noun completion.
- The verb study becomes the noun (gerund) studying.
- The adjectives happy and sad become the nouns happiness and sadness.
Nominalizing a verb or adjective doesn’t always change its form. Some verbs can function as nouns or verbs.
- Will you fix my computer? (verb)
- Yes, the fix is a simple reboot. (noun)
The verb form is the same, but how it’s used changes. In the first sentence, fix is an action; in the second, it’s a thing.
Turning a verb or adjective into a noun isn’t always wrong, but as a practice it makes for wordy, passive writing, as these sentences illustrate:
- The detectives conducted an investigation of the murder.
- Change to: The detectives investigated the murder.
- Holding our Christmas celebration on the Saturday before December 25 has been our practice for more than a decade.
- Change to: We have celebrated Christmas on the Saturday before December 25 for more than a decade.
To remedy nominalizations, look for nouns that can be turned into verbs. Nominalizations give more weight to the action than the person(s) responsible for them. A simple fix is locating the subject and verb and using that basic construction to breathe life back into your writing. Say no to zombie nouns!