Zombie Nouns and Passive Voice in Writing. Examples

Practice Writing
The examples below are from the talk given by Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature.

You can watch the full talk on Youtube.

Well, what are Zombie Nouns?

In her New York Times essay, the academic and writer Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” — that is, nouns that contain within them shorter verbs, adjectives, or other nouns — “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

A nominalization or “zombie noun” can often be recognized by an ending such as:

  • -able
  • -ance
  • -ation
  • -ency
  • -ian
  • -ion
  • -ism
  • -ity
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -sion

Zombie nouns are a problem when they render your writing more abstract than it needs to be. 

An easy example of this writing style is to turn “distort” into “distortion” or “assume” into “assumption.” In these examples, “distortion” and “assumption” are nominalizations of the original verbs.

Here are a few more nominalization examples, this time using adjectives:

Applicability- Applicable

Intensity - Intense

Slowness - Slow

Here is a great video explanation of why you should avoid Zombie Nouns in writing 

Here are some examples from the BKA Content website:

See more examples from Steven Pinker's talk below:


➡️ Avoid Zombie nouns in your writing. Use active verbs instead to communicate your ideas with clarity

➡️ Passive voice is not always evil. You need to learn to feel and understand when the passive voice does a better job than the active voice

As for the passive voice, I'd like to quote Stephen King, who said it best in his book On Writing:

I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers love passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think that unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyer’s torts majestic, I guess it does.

Consider watching this video

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