Zombie Nouns

Helen Sword’s discussion of “Zombie Nouns”: a problem wherein sentences become weighed down with verbs that have been turned into nouns (yes the passive is deliberate), and the subject of the sentence runs into hiding. An extended excerpt from her argument follows:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like itytion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacabilitycalibrationcronyism. 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 discursiveformation may be an indication of a tendency towardpomposity 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 tendabstraction 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:perceptionintelligenceepistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity andinterpellation 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.

In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track. In her book “Darwin’s Plots,” the literary historian Gillian Beer supplements abstract nouns like evidence,relationships and beliefs with vivid verbs (rebuffoverturn,exhilarate) and concrete nouns that appeal to sensory experience (earthsuneyes):

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

Her subject matter – scientific theories – could hardly be more cerebral, yet her language remains firmly anchored in the physical world.

Contrast Beer’s vigorous prose with the following passage from a social sciences book:

The partial participation of newcomers is by no means “disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.

Why does reading this paragraph feel like trudging through deep mud? The secret lies at its grammatical core: Participation is. . . . It is. . . . Peripherality suggests. . . . Ambiguity must be connected. Every single sentence has a zombie noun or a pronoun as its subject, coupled with an uninspiring verb. Who are the people? Where is the action? What story is being told?

To get a feeling for how zombie nouns work, release a few of them into a sentence and watch them sap all of its life. George Orwell played this game in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” contrasting a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes with his own satirical translation:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The Bible passage speaks to our senses and emotions with concrete nouns (sunbread), descriptions of people (the swift, the wise, men of understanding, men of skill) and punchy abstract nouns (race, battle, riches, time, chance). Orwell’s “modern English” version, by contrast, is teeming with nominalizations (considerations, conclusion, activities, tendency, capacity, unpredictable) and other vague abstractions (phenomena, success, failure, element). The zombies have taken over, and the humans have fled the village.

Sword offers a machine for testing the “health” of our sentences, the Writer’s Diet Test.

Writing Workshop: transitions

Students often say they need to work on their organization. It is, however, not always clear to them what organization means–or more to the point, how it is stitched and structured into an essay. I emphasize organization as a matter of revision and, in many cases, of some simple stylistic choices that “thread” an argument: keywords (beginning with a title), basic transition words that signal continuation while also emphasizing–this idea, this passage, but, however. A critical essay, we know, needs a thesis; an effectively organized essay often just needs more conscious attention to its transitions and key words–to the ways the writer can move the reader through the essay. For an example, consider this review in NYTimes Book Review of Edward Hirsch poetry by Peter Campion. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Between Ordinary and Ecstatic

Contemporary American poetry is sometimes panned for being mundane. With all the splendor and terror in the world, why should we care about some guy’s memories of high school, or the quality time he spends with his cat? Glancing over it, you might suspect that Edward Hirsch’s poetry would lend evidence to this view. Hirsch will begin a poem with a line like “Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater” or “Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge.” Neither opening seems to burn with that hard, gemlike flame.

But in Hirsch’s work, things are not always what they seem. Certainly, his poems work to dignify the everyday. But they do more than that. What makes Hirsch so singular in American poetry is the balance he strikes between the quotidian and something completely other — an irrational counterforce, the “living fire” that gives its name to his new selected poems.

That phrase appears in “Wild Gratitude,” the title poem of Hirsch’s 1986 volume. On its surface, the poem seems to be about, well, a guy spending time with his cat. But as he listens to her “solemn little squeals of delight,” he begins to remember the 18th-century English visionary and madman Christopher Smart, who in his most famous poem, “Jubilate Agno,” venerated his own cat, Jeoffry. The memory leads to a chain of associations, and the poem ends in a nearly epiphanic moment:

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry — and every creature like him —
Who can teach us how to praise — purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

This passage could stand as an emblem for all of Hirsch’s poetry. Literary and allusive, but also domestic and intimate, as it rises toward praise, Hirsch’s voice resounds with both force and subtlety.

One of the pleasures of reading the new selected poems is the chance to see that voice develop and then range freely and surprisingly. Most poets are hot one minute and cold the next, depending almost on the day of the week. But Hirsch is worth reading chronologically. He not only gets better with each new book; he also provides a kind of model for the growth of poetic intelligence…[goes on in the next paragraphs to review briefly those books included in the selected poems.]

Reading Birkerts: what and how

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. Pull back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing.

We see this vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about not the what of his writing but the how. And do this to see what we can learn as writers, borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, myself who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for an essay) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise‘ and ‘focus‘ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the glog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader.

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on the Kindle.

Workshop: Introductions

An infamous introduction:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

There is more than one way to do an effective introduction to an essay, just as there is more than one way to do a poor one. That’s lesson number one. Lesson number 2 is the focus for the workshop in class. A good way to improve upon the kinds of introductions (and related to these, the conclusions) you write is to think about writing more than one. Experiment with a different way of getting the reader into your essay, your argument, your narrative. Think of film as a relevant analogy: all films need to introduce and set up and even establish, so to speak, a thesis; but there are different ways to do it. And I would suggest, as with film, the way to find out how best to do the introduction is to have more than one to select from. Explore alternatives.

One basic way to introduce: begin generally and move toward your more specific focus and thesis statement. This establishes the context for the reader. The trick here is that you need to be careful not to be too general, too broad in your beginning. Context helps; generality hurts, distracts. For example, starting with sentences like this:

There are many films. Some are made from novels while others are not. Blade Runner is an example of a film. It is not made from a novel, but it can be viewed in relation to one….

A related danger is that in this introduction, you wander so far into generality, even when you think you are stating a thesis, it comes off as not specific. Something like: Blade Runner has lots of ideas that are also in Frankenstein (which, based on the last project, doesn’t directly answer the question given).

An antidote to being too general and vague is to start from the reverse position: challenge your reader directly with a close-up, something so specific it is not clear (yet) where the essay is going. Then back out to a middle-distance, where you state your focus and your thesis. In the case of an essay on Blade Runner, this would be to start in directly with an image or scene, then offer what the Graffs call ‘meta-commentary’: “What does this eyeball have to do with my focus?As I will argue in this essay, the eye…” I think of this as the ‘in media res’ approach: starting in the middle of the story, as it were, and using the specificity to focus your reader’s attention. This is also a way to borrow some rich, vivid imagery and language from your text and put it to work in your introduction, engage your reader with it.

Another option would be to do some combination of the two, the close-up and the distant/general view–to stay with film terminology, this is a tracking shot: where you follow a character into or out of a situation. This strategy provides context for the overall focus of your writing, but does so by also moving directly toward some specific points and questions. It locates your reader in the context of your argument before you get them to your specific statement of the argument. I found an example of this in a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in ‘The New Yorker’ (a review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish…[continues with several more sentences about pet-related expenses]

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork… [more statistics]

How is it that Americans, so solicitious of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. This inconsistency is the subject of Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”

In addition to the structure of your introduction, you can and should also consider other poetic and rhetorical  issues–that is, your use of language to create and convey. Thus, consider being specific with your language; consider also using variation of your sentences, shifting from long to short deliberately. On that score, consider this example, the opening of a recent essay about Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Notice how the shift from longer to shorter sentences conveys the argument–that Rwanda has shifted, has changed. This rhetorical strategy (a matter of his style) thus also helps introduce his essay effectively. In this sense, he can show us what he is writing about.

When I began visiting Rwanda, in 1995, a year after the genocide, the country was still pretty well annihilated: blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prison crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty–hunting survivors and being hunted in turn by revenge killers–and with the routed army and militias of the genocide and a million and a half of their followers camped on the borders, succored by the United Nations refugee agency, and vowing to return and finish the job. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority had been massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power, and, between the memory of the slaughter and the fear that it would resume, Rwanda often felt like an impossible country. Nowadays, when Rwandans look back on the early years of aftermath, they say, “In the beginning.”

On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system. Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment. In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen…. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.

Editing: introduction and conclusion

Some strategies and variations on dealing with introductions and conclusions–ways of making them seem less hideous and monstrous.

  1. Introduction: in media res (in the middle). Can be effective, particularly to establish a story or narrative for your essay. Since you are dealing with film, think about starting with a close-up, in one moment from one scene, then pulling back to get the larger view of the essay, ask questions, indicate where you are going.
  2. Conclusion: circle back to beginning. Can tie in with the strategy above. End by circling back to a moment from your text that you opened with, but now go back to that with greater insight. Films do this when we begin at an end, and the film is showing us how we got there.
  3. Keywords: set-up some keywords that your reader will look for throughout the essay (think of them as the hyperlinks that your reader will be following); then reiterate those keywords in the conclusion. This can help you avoid merely re-stating or repeating in your conclusion. See Jen’s example.
  4. Start with a vivid image or line from the text: both catches attention, but also a key image/idea that you will go on to reflect upon in the essay, get back to, look at from different angles. See Erin’s example.
  5. Conclusion: raise some larger implications. Can be tricky, since a conclusion can’t start a brand new argument or offer a new thesis. But a good essay will leave your reader thinking and (we hope) will have them begin to think about other places where they could take your thesis and make further applications. One way to do this with a text (print or film): suggest a passage at the end that you didn’t deal with, but that would be interesting to view from the perspective of your thesis. How your critical vision might help readers re-think or re-vise our understanding of other aspects of this author’s work, related questions and topics. Leave your reader not just with a good understanding of what you focused on, but what the larger stake or implication of that focus is.
  6. Introduction: two-step thesis set up. Something we have seen Hayles and others do: an initial set up of the focus in one paragraph, perhaps raising a key question; then a refined, and more complicated statement of your thesis, or how you plan to answer that question in a second paragraph. 
  7. Meta-commentary: don’t be afraid to speak directly to your reader at key points in your introduction and conclusion, to signal a point of emphasis. “In other words”; “What I mean by this”; “As I have said, my thesis is”; “Let me clarify this point”; “This is an important point, worth emphasizing”. These are effective signals; they can enable you to repeat without being too repetitive.

Examples to consider from our Writing Center consultants:

Jen Malat: excerpt from a thesis chapter (introduction and conclusion) about film versions of Pride and Prejudice.

Strategy: Don't try to cram every important idea into one thesis
statement. Use a few sentences that set up the work and broad ideas of the
paper, then use your actual thesis statement to present the most specific
and interesting point made by your paper.

Here, I started with a broad statement that sets up the modern context I
want the paper to address because the paper is examining a contemporary
film and the aspects of our culture that it reflects. By spreading a
thesis statement into several sentences, the layers of the argument
(culture, film, and text) can be clearly established.
The conclusion also acknowledges the multiple media of the paper and
extends that cultural context to a statement about how the themes of the
film relate to each other.

The countless self-help guides lining bookstore shelves highlight the modern confusion over how romance is structured and how to navigate through turbulent emotional waters. This confusion is especially true during early romances while one is growing up, a theme that is explored in countless novels, songs, and movie. It follows, then, that recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice would be eager to explore these modern themes with beloved characters and a well-known title. The most recent big-screen adaptation of Austen’s novel, director Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfayden as Fitzwilliam Darcy, consistently highlights physicality, nature, and romance. By constructing the adaptation as romance rather than social commentary, the filmmakers track the maturation of Elizabeth. The very setting and visual aesthetic of the film highlight Elizabeth’s uncertainties about her body and reflects her emotional vacillations regarding the movement into adulthood, as the film depicts romance as the catalyst for her coming of age.



  The filmmakers have capitalized on the power of the visual imagery of film to achieve their ends and reinvent the period piece for the modern audience, as “youth-oriented filmmaking techniques balances with the visual pleasures of the heritage film” (Dole). The difficulties of navigating the body highlight emotional uncertainty and the always-relevant theme of coming of age. The changes, both textual and visual, drastically manipulate the social focus of Austen’s satiric writing into a more intimate story. Though many of the alterations in the film can be attributed to time constraints or a conscious appeal to female and teen demographics, there still remains the profound cultural desire for a strong female lead who manages to gain self-empowerment while achieving a fairy-tale ending as a material reward. Marriage is portrayed as the end point for socially approved sexual desire, which leads to greater self-knowledge and helps a modern woman fulfill her demands for adulthood. 


Erin O’Hare: from her thesis work on Shakespeare.

Strategy:            Use a vivid image (quote from the text or a supporting source, specific visual image from a scene, etc.) to immediately capture your reader’s interest.  If one has stuck out to you in your reading, it might be an interesting starting point for your essay. 

Here, instead of using a typical “In this play…” introduction, I use a quote that mirrors the issues I highlight throughout the essay (and this is a long essay).  The idea of “cause” present in the chosen quote and the other issues addressed in the described scene introduce and support the complex argument formed within the paper.

            I use this technique again in the conclusion, much to the same effect—I have chosen to end the essay just as it began, with a vivid image enhanced by quote (and a quote from that very same scene, nonetheless) that the reader will see over and over each time he or she thinks about the essay.



“It is the cause,” the deteriorated Othello moans in the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello:  The Moor of Venice.  “…[It] is the cause, my soul;/ Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,/ It is the cause” (5.2.1-3).  “It” is the image of his wife Desdemona, her white skin “smooth as monumental alabaster,” an image the Moor cannot bring himself to deface despite the fact that it has already destructed his own sense of self.  It is the last scene in a tragedy that, through iconography (the creation of images), idolatry (a worship of image), and iconoclasm (destruction of image), explores “the disruptions, conflicts, and radical changes wrought by the Protestant Reformation.”           





Shakespeare’s movement through acts of iconography, idolatry, and iconoclasm in rehearsal of the audience’s own fears, instructs his audience on the proper way of looking at images.  He places a play within a play for eyes to gaze upon without becoming enthralled by the immediate spectacle before them, using the tragic genre to evoke the most human of emotions rooted firstly in fear, as they become aware of rather than part of Iago’s revenge tragedy.  Though he employs Protestant rhetoric and works to attack a certain form in order to build another, Shakespeare cannot completely destruct the dramatic form, much as Othello cannot bring himself to “shed [Desdemona’s] blood,/ Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (5.2.3-4).  And yet it is the cause, and theater, at least in its idolatrous Catholic form, “must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6).


Huston Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England  (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1997): 2.