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Thursday, July 26, 2012

How academics murder the language

Zombie Nouns

How many student and researchers have ploughed through writing that turns reading English into something that feels like ploughing through mud?

Helen Sword, in the New York Times, brilliantly analyses the mistakes academics make

Let's look at this sentence:

"The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction."

And now, the contrast:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Which would you rather read?  The answer is obvious.  One is clear, and the message is easy, while the other, which says exactly the same thing, is ponderous and condescending. Helen Sword wrote them both, as an illustration of how nominalizations can murder the language.

So, what is a nominalization?  Helen Sword explains:

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:.

As she goes on to say:

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.

 A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie-free.

Hit the link at the top of this post to read the whole illuminating argument.

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