In her NYT Draft editorial, “Zombie Nouns,” Helen Sword explores the overuse of nominalizations, or nouns formed from other parts of speech by adding a suffix like ity, tion, or ism. Sword postulates that while some people (read: attorneys, bureaucrats, academics) believe that nominalizations sound impressive, their use makes writing overly complicated and hard to understand, and thereby weaker. She calls them ‘…“zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
When it comes to verbs, if to be or not to be is the question, then the answer is not to be! Strong writing avoids being-verbs and employs action-verbs, but nominalizations often relegate verbs to their being forms, i.e. the simple “indicate” becomes “may be an indication of.” Also, Sword advises that structuring sentences around human subjects versus abstract concepts helps readers stay connected to the writing.
"At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t."
How often do you find yourself tempted to add an “ity” or “ism” to adjectives, verbs, or even other nouns? Find out if you are guilty of overusing nominalizations with this interactive tool, the Writer’s Diet test. The test allows you to input a sample of your writing and then gives automated feedback about which parts of speech need to be excised for more “fit” sentences.