Tuesday, November 27, 2012

To take "Zombie Nouns" seriously, you must've had your brains eaten.

At first, I didn't feel like blogging about the NYT Column on "Zombie Nouns" because I feel like I've been spending too much time being critical here, arguing against usage advice like this is futile, and I knew Mark Liberman would cover it. In fact, I drafted this post all the way back during the summer, and just let it sit. But now, I've seen the column, nearly verbatim, pop up on TED-Ed as a fully animated "lesson", which presumably means some educators are actually assigning it to classrooms of fertile and impressionable minds! It really can't pass without comment now.

Helen Sword says that you should avoid using nominalizations, which she calls "zombie nouns." They're nouns that have been made out of other parts of speech. To take one of her examples, calibrate + ion = calibration.

What is so wrong about nominalizations? Not exactly clear. She seems to take aim at unnecessarily jargonistic writing, which frequently contains novel coinings of words of all types, including nominalizations. So sure, being jargonistic to obscure your other intellectual shortcomings is not so good. But is it really, actually, the mere use of nominalizations that's doing the damage there?

She also seems to take a page out of the anti-passive voice book, saying, "it fails to tell us who is doing what," which just like the passive, is just not true. For example, in the sentence
  • My criticism of her column is a day late and a dollar short.
It's very clear who is doing what, even though I used a nominalization (in bold).

But on top of the half baked usage advice, there are some more reprehensible social attitudes being expressed. For example, she lists epistemology as a useful nominalization for expressing a complex idea, but heteronormativity as one only out of touch academics who are enchanted by jargon use. First off, I would not want to use epistemology as an example when explaining what nominalizations are. What's it derived from? Episteme? Episteme has a Wikipedia page, so I guess it's that. Which brings me to the next issue here. It's embarrassing for me to admit, but whenever someone says or writes epistemology, I have to go look it up on Wikipedia. How does using epistemology not count as being out of touch with how ordinary people speak? Heteronormativity, on the other hand, is pretty easy to wrap your mind around. From Wikipedia:
Heteronormativity is a term to describe any of a set of lifestyle norms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a "heteronormative" view is one that involves alignment of biological sex, sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles.
That's a pretty complex idea. But you know what? It's pretty easy to decode most of that meaning from the word itself, at least, if you're vaguely familiar with the politics of the time. Hetero(sexual) + normative + ity. It seems to me that she's saying more about her position on sex and gender politics here than she is about usage advice.

But who is this person, and why is she writing an opinion column in the New York Times, and getting the full TED treatment? Just like everyone, she's selling something: the icing on the cake, and my reason for blogging about this at all. She has a book out called The Writer's Diet, which has an accompanying online Writer's Diet Test. No, it's not diet as in "food for thought and inspiration," like a Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul. It's diet as in dieting as in "drop 20 lbs and get the six pack abs you always wanted." Just paste in a paragraph of your writing into the test, and it'll rate you along a five point scaled labeled:

lean fit & trim needs toning flabby heart attack territory

Ain't nothing like exploiting the collective dysmorphia of a nation to push your quarter-baked usage decrees. But in doing so, Sword actually clarifies the role that books like hers play. The analogy to the diet and weight loss industry is entirely apt. The dieting industry makes their money by sowing seeds of personal insecurity, then reaps their harvest with offers of unfounded, unscientific, and ultimately futile dieting pills, products, methods, 10 step plans, meals, regimes, books, magazines, etc.

I won't mince words. The NYT column and the TED-Ed video have the equivalent intellectual content of the magazines in the supermarket aisle promising you 5 super easy steps to trim your belly fat to get a sexy beach bod in time for the summer. And they serve the same purpose: to undermine the confidence of every-day folk, so that they may be taken advantage of by self-appointed gurus.


  1. Nice post. I think I agree with everything you say here, except I like the phrase 'zombie nouns'. Wish it hadn't been associated with this negative (and misguided) attitude B--)

  2. Actually, I changed my mind. It's a pretty poor coinage, since zombies are made out of dead people and words like calibrate are alive and well. What next, zombies that can run? ;--)

  3. This presumably comes from the passive voice detection rule that you can add "by zombies" to a passive sentence (eg Mistakes were made (by zombies)).
    Extending this to Zombie Nouns is the kind of cloth eared transformation that Orwell warned about in Politics And The English Language, which remains the best advice on the topic.

  4. Wait a minute... isn't "nominalization" a nominalization? Couldn't they find a real word for it?


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