Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Zombie Noun Apocalypse

I saw a brilliant column in the New York Times online this morning about the continued trend to dilute the power of simple, direct, written English.  Helen Sword charges head on to carve up “nominalizations” or as she calls them, “zombie nouns.”

A nominalization is when you tack a suffix onto an active verb to create a new noun.  She calls these “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood out of adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Academics, lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers love them, presumably because they take ordinary words and make them sound more important.  She provides a crystal clear example of the difference.  Start with this sentence here:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

Now, this is the same sentence, without all the added baggage:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.”

How much better would our professional lives be if more businesses wrote that clearly?  That’s always been a pet peeve of mine.  So often, I see people who sound completely normal when speaking; change completely as soon as they have to write something in a business setting.  Out come all the fancy-schmancy twenty-dollar words, whose only purpose is to make an ordinary statement sound more intellectual.

Sometimes it’s better to “use your head” than “utilize your thought processes.”

When I first took the training course to learn how to write procedures, my completion certificate came with a great saying, “Good writing is clear thinking, made visible.” (Bill Wheeler – Technology Consultant/Writer)

My previous boss almost always wrote “utilize” when “use” would do just as well.  I would always change it when proofreading, saying, “Why put the longer word when the shorter one means the exact same thing?

He’d always agree, but then there it would be the next time.  The habit is hard to kick, I guess.

Ever since I came to my current department, it’s been a goal of mine to simplify the language we use in our department memos and procedures.  I’m lucky that my bosses see it the same way.  When I interviewed, I told her that I’m not one for long-winded writing and puffery; my documents would be clear and direct.  She said that was exactly what they wanted, so it was a match made in heaven.

At the end of the Times article, there was a link to the Writer’s Diet Test.  Here, you can submit a sample of your writing and obtain instant feedback and evaluation on how “fat” your writing is.

I’m a sucker for things like that, so I submitted one of my blog posts.  To be sure not to sway the evaluation by using one of my more simplistic posts, like the one with all the dick jokes, I went the other way.  I used the one where I was explaining why I vote Democratic, because I was pitching an argument and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

This was the scale that I got back:

I was pleasantly surprised.  I was between “lean” and “fit and trim” in all but one category.  I have to shape up my “waste words.”  In re-reading what I’d submitted, I think the criticism was valid.  I found a number of places where I could have eliminated some of the filler and written more directly.

Overall I was given a rating of:
If only it applied to other areas as well.

I bookmarked the test site and plan on using it at work, as a check on myself when I’ve got an important communication in the works.

So what about you?  Want to test one of your posts and see how you stack up?  Let us know how you did, in Comments.

Note: the test is not really meant for highly descriptive, sensory-type stuff.  It was designed to promote clear business writing.  The romance novel you’re secretly working on probably wouldn’t be the best test subject. 

Another Note: I used the Writer’s Diet Test site on this post and while I got another “Fit and Trim,” the proportions were different.  Waste Words were down to “Fit and Trim” but Verbs were up to “Needs Toning.”  But that’s good because you have to realize that I was providing examples of the bad writing within the text and using the word "was" a lot.

What this shows is the testing tool can help a writer tone up his writing immediately!


Anonymous said...

I am no happy.

They rate me as flabby because of my verbs. My verbs are my precious children, my jewels! If you touch them, you do so at your own risk.

Now, I do not deny that there is way too much flabbiness elsewhere in my life, but my verbs are an Adonis-like six pack of literati. Sorry if my writing has too much action for your tastes, Writer's Diet.

Jessica R. said...

When I edit for work, the first thing I do is cut out "that's." "That" is so overused. I put in an article that I wrote for our next issue and got a "lean." The only thing I was fit and trim on was my prepositions.

My blog writing, however, is probably all together flabby. :)

Judie said...

Geroge Will should take that test!!

Parents with young children tend to speak in simple sentences, until the children grow up and begin thinking that they know way more than their parents ever did. Then all bets are off! Make 'um look up those big fancy words in the dictionary, but God help us if they can actually find them there! Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Homer Simpson said, "Doh!" Real life is somewhere in between.

Serial Monogamist said...

I think that people use "that" too much, too.

Muah ah ah ah.

bluzdude said...

“My verbs are my precious children, my jewels!”

Let it be known… everyone should stay away from Bagger’s family jewels!

bluzdude said...

I’m interested in trying the test out on the next thing I have to write for work… And then see how it goes over.

bluzdude said...

That is something I also need to work on… obviously.

bluzdude said...

I don’t think my parents ever simplified their language when talking to us. “Don’t make me come up there,” was pretty simple though. But we all ended up with pretty substantial vocabularies at an early age.

I know my brother and his wife used their standard vocabulary in bringing up my nephews. And I can tell you, Daniel was using these big, multi-syllable words (correctly) at three.

I remember him identifying all these dinosaurs to me… ones I hadn’t even heard of. He was probably 4 or 5. I told him, “Those are some pretty long names there…”

He said, all matter-of-factly, “I’m a paleontologist, you know.”

Judie said...

I have to admit that all of my children had amazing vocabularies at a very young age, as do Joey's twins and Jeff's daughter.

My vocabulary for the last several days has been only a series of grunts and moans as I clean out 14 year's worth of STUFF in this house! I did get to use some very strong and unforgetable words, however, when the manager of North American Van Lines called and said that we were going to have to pay $900 more because the agent gave us some bad information. That guy will not soon forget me, nor will he foget Rod. The cost will remain as quoted, and the difference will be coming out of the agent's commission.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

"I put in an article that I wrote . . ."

I always have to go back and trim my "that"s. Half of the time I think they're really necessary, but half of the time, not so much.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

You know, oftentimes when people comment on my food writing, it's to say how unaffected my language is. Because food writers loooooove to be flowery and unnecessary. But of course I always take offense to it, because it tells me I write like a second-grader.

bluzdude said...

Moving companies know that they have you over a barrel, so I’ve heard all kinds of stories like that. You’re just lucky that they didn’t tell you that while they had possession of your stuff. Then you’ve got very little recourse.

bluzdude said...

You should show them a hand-written First Draft of one of your columns... written on 3-bar paper.

(Do they still use that?)

bluzdude said...

This stuff must really be sinking in... today I went back over an email I was sending and deleted a half-dozen "thats."

facie said...

That was really interesting. I received a nice Fit and Trim when I gave my thoughts on the Freeh Report. But apparently my post on whom I would like to vote for was quite flabby, with my verbs at heart-attack city. :-)

bluzdude said...

I guess subject matter counts, huh? Maybe it's because your Penn State post was emotional and direct. Politics is more analytical, and also rife with attempts to persuade. And one of the ways we try to persuade is to try to sound smarter.

It really is an interesting tool...

Mary Ann said...

"Brevity is the soul of wit" is tongue in cheek, spoken by Polonius, a wordy old windbag who never used a single syllable word or one word where he could use a paragraph.
When we say I am cognizant, what happened to I know? Because can easily replace Due to the fact that. Why does The fact of the matter mattter when The fact is says so.
Mistakes were made. By whom?

bluzdude said...

That Shakespeare… he’s such a rascal.

I know at work, they love “passive voice” because “mistakes were made” is so much easier to say than “I fucked up.”

mary Ann said...

I am appreciative of your responsiveness to having been exposed to current available phrasing and handy, trendy goobbeldegook. Due to the fact tha mistakes are made by pompous windbags, I am cognicent of the fact that...that...that...the ZOMBIES ARE HERE!