Kill zombie nouns in three easy steps

Zombie nouns are one of the most common problems I see in non-fiction writing. By learning how to identify and replace zombie nouns, you’ll instantly improve the quality of your writing. And your readers will thank you for it!

Nominalisations, or zombie nouns, are nouns formed from other parts of speech like adjectives or verbs. They are called ‘zombie nouns’ because they suck life out of speech — replacing words we understand with abstract entities we don’t.

Academic, legal and government writing is often cluttered with zombie nouns. Here’s an example of some writing with the zombies highlighted:

A recycling project investigation is being led by Council officials in partnership with relevant government departments. This investigation will be used for the preparation of a business case with the aim of securing the Council’s approval at its next meeting. The business case will describe recycling-scheme affordability and household-collection feasibility. Subject to stakeholder feedback and Council approval, the project will proceed to implementation in the New Year. The project has good alignment with the government’s waste-reduction priority. Risks to the project’s achievement will be monitored during implementation through a risk-monitoring process.

By converting plain words and phrases into zombie nouns, the writer has created several problems:

  • The writing sounds pompous and abstract.
  • The writing is hard to understand.
  • The writing uses complex terms that may be understood differently by different people (even within the same organisation).

Have a look at your organisation’s documents, manuals or websites to see if this problem exists where you work. If it does, don’t worry — zombie nouns are easily fixed!

Step 1: Take a piece of writing and list all the zombie nouns you can find.

Step 2: List the corresponding verb or adjective that you used to make each zombie noun. Here’s a list of the words from our example paragraph:

Zombie noun Original verb or adjective
Investigation To investigate
Preparation To prepare
Aim To aim for
Approval To approve
Recycling-scheme affordability Affordable (adjective)
Household-collection feasibility Feasible (adjective)
Feedback To feedback or to give feedback
Implementation To implement
Alignment To align with
Waste-reduction priority To prioritise
Achievement To achieve
Risk-monitoring process To monitor

Step 3: Rewrite your work using the original verbs and adjectives.

Here’s the same example, but this time the zombie nouns have been replaced by their original verbs or adjectives.

Council officials and relevant government departments are investigating ways to improve recycling. They will then prepare a business case for the Council to approve at its next meeting. The business case will explain how to make recycling affordable and whether it’s feasible to collect recycling from households. If the Council approves the business case, and stakeholders support the project, the Council will implement it in the New Year. The Government has prioritised reducing waste, and this project aligns with that goal. As the Council implements the project, it will monitor any risks that could prevent it achieving its objectives.

If you want help to banish the zombies from your writing, get in touch with me today.