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Academic science writers beware: zombie nouns ahead

Photo by Chris Hall on Unsplash

They were once active verbs, full of life —

Analyze. Investigate. Observe. Explore.

Somewhere along the academic writing process, however, a science writer sucked the brains out of these vivid verbs, and transformed them into lifeless abstract “zombie nouns” — more formally known as nominalizations.

Analysis. Investigation. Observation. Exploration.

Perhaps the scientist who sacrificed her active verbs thought she was making her text sound more professional, more intellectual, more — academic.

It’s an unfortunate and all-too-common mistake. If the document does ends up sounding more academic, it’s likely academic in the worst way possible — it probably resembles academese.

Don’t blame the zombies

Before we dig any deeper, let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing wrong with nominalizations, per se. In some cases, they can be particularly useful!

When such nominalizations summarize the action of a previous sentence, for example, they create a backward link to an idea in the previous phrase, creating a sense of cohesion for your reader.

For example:

We quantified the number of GFP-positive cells and found that they were at background level. This quantification demonstrated that our transfection experiment was unsuccessful.

Blame the writer for overusing and misusing the zombies.

The problem with nominalizations is that academics tend to overuse and misuse them. What constitutes a misuse? When the zombie noun is being used to convey action.

Let’s borrow an example and a quote from the Duke Scientific Writing Resource:

“In the first example, the verb is to perform, but the intended action is probably to analyze (hidden in the nominalization analysis). The point of this sentence probably has nothing to do with performance. But a reader of the first example has to consider this possibility (if subconsiously), while the reader of the second clearly understands the action.”

In other words:

  • When writers overuse nominalizations, they burden their readers with having to do the work of identifying the main action of the sentence.
  • When writers misuse nominalizations, they create a mental disconnect for their reader.

How to prevent the zombie apocalypse

  1. Interrogate your sentences. Ask them: “Who is doing what?” If you don’t get a straight answer, then there’s a high chance that a zombie noun has cannibalized the intended action of your sentence. It’s up to you to bring it back from the dead.
  2. Scan your document for an overuse of prepositional phrases (especially those little linking words of, by, to, and through). Such phrases tend to drive subject and verb further and further apart — and they are especially common in the presence of zombie nouns. The more often you do this as a writer, the more likely you are to confuse and frustrate your reader.
  3. Employ the concrete noun + active verb combo. Search for combinations of concrete nouns (subject), immediately followed by an active verb (We analyzed a set of/Researchers designed/We report on) and KEEP those! And if you don’t have enough of such combinations, see where you can transform some dead sentences into life.
  4. Search through your document for suffixes that likely indicate the zombification of an otherwise vivid verb (-tion, -ism, -ance, -ity, -ness,)
  5. Animate abstract nouns with active verbs and, when possible, explain abstract concepts using concrete examples.

If you’re an academic writer and need a pair of eyes on your document, you can reach me at coachanahita@gmail.com

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Anahita Vieira, PhD

Anahita Vieira, PhD

Neuroscientist. Senior Science Writer by day. Creative writer by night. Twin/NICU Mom 24/7. But first, coffee.

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