Cannibals eat the flesh of fellow human beings.
And words can eat fellow words.
It depends on how you string them together.
How do you prefer to communicate with words: to clarify or to convolute, clutter, and confuse? To reveal or conceal?
That’s why Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), refers to one type of words as zombie nouns.
Zombie Nouns: Nominalizations
So as a general rule, use verbs instead of the related nouns when possible.
- discover (not discovery)
- discuss (not discussion)
- emphasize (not emphasis)
- fail (not failure)
- fulfill (not fulfillment)
- notify (not notification)
- observe (not observation)
- react (not reaction)
- summarize (not summary)
- violate (not violation)
And when you use verbs instead of their related nouns, you use fewer words:
- “Helen Sword makes an observation that nominalizations decrease clarity” (9 words). Better: “Helen Sword observes that nominalizations decrease clarity” (7 words).
- “Paul presents a summary of justification by faith” (8 words). Better: “Paul summarizes justification by faith” (5 words).
- “John places an emphasis on faith” (6 words). Better: “John emphasizes faith” (3 words).
“In some cases nominalizations are useful, even necessary,” Joseph Williams qualifies in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, but usually they muddy sentences and decrease clarity.
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who since 2008 has chaired the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, nails it in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century:
Together with verbal coffins like model and level in which writers entomb their actors and actions, the English language provides them with a dangerous weapon called nominalization: making something into a noun. The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ation, or –ing. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. The writing scholar Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead …
Comprehension checks were used as exclusion criteria.
We excluded people who failed to understand the instructions.
… As this cartoon by Tom Toles suggests, zombie nouns and adjectives are one of the signatures of academese:
[The editorial cartoon shows a bearded academic at his desk explaining why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: “Incomplete implementation of strategized programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development.”]
… Zombie nouns, unlike the verbs whose bodies they snatched, can shamble around without subjects. That is what they have in common with the passive constructions that also bog down these examples, like was affirmed and were used. (pp. 50–52)
Pinker rightly connects nominalizations with passive constructions, which we could call zombie verbs.
Zombie Verbs: The Passive Voice
You can create cannibals with more than just nouns. You can do it with verbs, too. Just abuse the passive voice.
But if you want to be clear and concise, use the active voice rather than the passive.
- “Eli’s sons were killed by God.” Better: “God killed Eli’s sons.”
- “The book was written by Paul.” Better: “Paul wrote the book.”
Again, this is a general rule. There are exceptions when the passive voice is better. For example, I think that Paul’s letter to the Galatians emphasizes that both Jews and Gentiles are justified (passive voice) by faith. I could say that God justifies (active voice) both Jews and Gentiles, but that doesn’t quite capture what Paul says. Paul is not emphasizing that God justifies but that humans are justified in a certain way. I’m not sure how to capture that without using the passive.
Passives aren’t always bad, but they should be the salt and pepper of a meal, not the steak. Writers often overuse and misuse passives, and they are usually oblivious to it.
I just finished micro-reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, and it served me well. Outstanding book. Some, however, might selectively quote him on the passive voice. He proclaims, for example, “we now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice” (p. 3). But elsewhere in the same book he warns against using the passive voice in a certain way. His point throughout the book is that skilled writers know how to use the passive voice well:
The advice to bring zombie nouns back to life as verbs and to convert passives into actives is ubiquitous in style guides and plain language laws. For the reasons we’ve just seen, it’s often good advice. But it’s good advice only when a writer or an editor understands why it’s being offered [passive]. No English construction could have survived in the language for a millennium and a half unless it had continued to serve some purpose, and that includes passives and nominalizations. They may be overused [passive], and often they are badly used [passive], but that does not mean they should not be used [passive] at all. Nominalizations … can be useful in connecting a sentence to those that came before, keeping the passage coherent. The passive voice, too, has several uses in English. One of them … is indispensable to classic style: the passive allows the writer to direct the reader’s gaze, like a cinematographer choosing the best camera angle. …
The problem with the passives that bog down bureaucratic and academic prose is that they are not selected [passive] with these purposes in mind. They are symptoms of absent-mindedness in a writer who has forgotten that he should be staging an event for the reader. (pp. 54–56; I note in brackets where Pinker deliberately uses passives)
As any copy editor or paper-grading teacher knows, people tend to use the passive voice mindlessly, not artfully.
That is why Pinker affirms what Gordon W. Allport writes in “An Epistle to Thesis Writers” (which Allport wrote for his Harvard University students, probably in the 1960s):
There is no anguish like the anguish of writing a Ph.D. thesis. The stress—like all other states of mind—is likely to seep into your expressive behavior, including your style of writing.
Verb forms are the first to suffer. Your anxiety and feeling of insecurity will tempt you to an excessive use of the passive voice: “On the basis of the analysis which was made of the data which were collected, it is suggested that the null hypothesis can be rejected.” “Please sir, I didn’t do it! It was done!” Try to conquer your cowardice, and start your concluding chapter with the creative assertion: “Lo! I found …” You may attempt to defend your enervating use of the passive voice by pointing out that the only alternative is excessive reliance upon the first personal pronoun or upon the pontifical We. It is safer, you conclude to choose self-effacement at this critical moment in your career. I reply: even in critical moments I see no harm in saying “I” if I mean “I.”
But the alternatives are specious. A good writer finds ways of avoiding both the self-defeating passive and the self-apotheosizing active. Let the data tell the story. Let the plot of the investigation rush ahead. Let viable verbs move the reader forward. Most of these dwell in the past—on what was thought, was done, on tests that were administered (or, Heaven save us, on “subjects who were administered the tests”). Everything is as static as William James’ cow on the doormat: It is maintained; it is suggested; the writer (lacking free will and responsibility) is persuaded ….
Sometimes people push back against such advice and label the grammarians as purists or pedants or grammar Nazis.
The terms ooze with negative connotations, so they stack the deck. Poison the well. Slant the discussion. It’s like calling people fundamentalists because they are more strict than you are in theology or ethics.
Aside: Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is shrewd, but I think he is not sensibly stylish when he routinely uses words like purist to ridicule anyone who is grammatically more traditional than he is (see especially ch. 6). Both one’s position and disposition are important.
In my role as a professor, I am concerned that students master the general rules before they routinely break them. Some students so blindly overuse and abuse nominalizations and the passive voice that they cannot legitimately cite authorities like Steven Pinker to support their poor writing habits.
So if nominalizations and passives are killing your writing, kill the zombie nouns and verbs.
Update on 9/2/2016: Sometimes my seminary students ask how nominalizations and passives can be so bad if the New Testament is so full of them. But the New Testament authors wrote in Greek! I am arguing that we should communicate clearly in modern-day English. And one of the ways to do that is to avoid nominalizations and passives (as a general rule).
- 10 Issues I Frequently Mark When Grading Theology Papers
- Kevin DeYoung, “How to Write More Gooder”
- Six Useful Books on Writing
- Charlotte’s Web: A Model of Good Writing
- Be More Specific Than “Points” or “Things”
- MacArthur: “It’s very easy to be hard to understand”
- How to Write a Theology Essay
- How to Grade Papers
- Ian McEwan interviews Steven Pinker on good writing. Engaging discussion (e.g., Pinker talks about the generic he and singular they from 1:09:29 to 1:15:28).
- What Makes a Word “Real”? A fascinating TED Talk by Anne Curzan, English professor at the University of Michigan and member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel
- Mark Ward: “A sense for grammar and smooth writing is the fruit of good reading” (point 3)