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Folt and the Zombie Noun
The NYT has a lovely piece by a Kiwi academic, Helen Sword, who discusses the use of “zombie nouns” in stilted, bureaucratic writing:
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?
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:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:
Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
Only one zombie noun - the key word nominalizations - has been allowed to remain standing.
At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication.
‘Nuf said. An anonymous Dartblog reader — he writes to me under the pseudonym Same Old Same Old — agrees with my past criticisms of IP Carol Folt’s flaccid prose (a reflection of her thinking). He took a recent Folt memo and ran it through the analysis tool, the Writer’s Diet test, included in Professors Sword’s article. Folt’s overall score on the memo was FLABBY, and her use of nouns, the subject of Sword’s piece, put Folt in HEART ATTACK TERRITORY. I agree. Perhaps IP Folt has other strengths?
The Writer’s Diet test is an irresistible tool. Needless to say, I ran my above paragraph through it. Whew! Interestingly, the first thousand words of the Presidential Position Profile is little better that IP Folt’s prose above. No surprise there; word has it that Folt wrote a good deal of the embarrassing document.
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