English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This is one of the New York Times writing rules.I don't know exactly what “zombie nouns” and verbs mean here. Can someone give some examples?

Rule 6: Write With Non-Zombie Nouns and Verbs

Delve into Strunk and White’s fourth style reminder “Write with nouns and verbs” by reading about what Helen Sword calls “Zombie Nouns”:

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.

Fight those nasty zombie nouns with vivacious verbs.

share|improve this question
See the Wikipedia article on Nominalization, which includes the text: “From the viewpoint of linguistic prescriptivism, nominalizations are considered to make sentences more difficult to follow and to promote wordiness. For these reasons, nominalisations are usually discouraged in writing.” – tchrist Aug 3 '13 at 2:53
I think this is General Reference. Even though the term zombie nouns (and Helen Sword's disapproval of them) aren't exactly common knowledge, as Wendikidd's answer points out, the very newspaper article OP cites includes the full definition anyway. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '13 at 3:22
Nominalization is a nominalization -- avoid it. – Kris Aug 3 '13 at 7:30
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The New York Times article from which you quoted offers several examples and a definition:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

What the writer is saying is that these so-called "zombie nouns" are overcomplicated and take away from language (in the writer's opinion). They specifically focus on the fact that they take away from verb usage. Another example from that article:

Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes global becomes globalize becomes globalization. The grandfather of all nominalizations, antidisestablishmentarianism, potentially contains at least two verbs, three adjectives and six other nouns.

share|improve this answer
How to "Fight those nasty zombie nouns with vivacious verbs."? – user49021 Aug 2 '13 at 23:47
@user49021 Here's an attempt at fighting. Look at the Wikipedia example quoted in tchrist's comment on the question. Replace it with something like "Nominalizations glop up your sentences and annoy your readers. Avoid them." (Surely others can fight better, but this is what immediately came to my mind.) – Andreas Blass Aug 3 '13 at 3:18
None among implacability, calibration, cronyism is a Helen Sword zombie-noun. – Kris Aug 3 '13 at 7:26
@Kris: implacability and cronyism certainly are. – Peter Shor Aug 3 '13 at 15:34

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.