Call Me Stormy

Finding righteous currents in turbulent times

Beware of Zombie Nouns

In a letter he wrote to a friend in 1880, Mark Twain said, “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English —  It is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. ”

Helen Sword is on the same track as Twain, but adjectives aren’t her pet peeve. She’s on a crusade to stamp out “nominalizations,” or what she calls zombie nouns. Zombie nouns transform simple and straightforward prose into verbose and often confusing writing. Here, Sword, who teaches at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, explains.

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