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Avoiding “Zombie nouns” to engage your reader

Writer and scholar Helen Sword coined the term Zombie nouns to denote nouns with more than two syllables and that typically end in -tion, -ment or -ity. They also typically go with the preposition “of”. They cause readers to take a coffee break, fall asleep or stop reading.

So, how can we wake the readers up? By changing the Zombie nouns into active verbs.

Sometimes we can use a phrasal verb or an infinitive or gerund of the root word.

Imagine a list of tasks full of these Zombies. What would you use instead of these?   

I was responsible for:

  • The implementation of a project
  • The development of creative ideas
  • The management of the finances of the project
  • The establishment of a working group of experts
  • The organization of weekly meetings
  • The eradication of a disease
  • People who have a long-standing collaboration
  • Requesting your availability to attend the conference.
  • Discussion held on digitalization of the minutes

These Zombies can sound stilted in many English contexts, so they are best avoided.

Answer key

  • Carrying out a project (avoid “implementing”)
  • Developing/Designing/ Thinking up creative ideas
  • Managing the finances of the project
  • Setting up/forming a working group of experts (avoid “establishing”)
  • Setting up/holding weekly meetings (avoid “organizing”)
  • Eradicating a disease
  • People who have long collaborated
  • Are you available to attend the conference?
  • Discussing whether to digitalize the minutes

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