Beware of the “Beware Of”

I came across a link posted to Twitter today to the #tleap hashtag: Beware of Nominalizations (AKA Zombie Nouns), a TED-ED video. When I stared watching it, I couldn’t help but groan. I would personally never pass this video on to a student of EAP.

The whole premise of the video is a characterization of “nouns made from other parts of speech” as “zombie nouns which consume the living” as they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood out of adjectives, and substitute abstract entities for human beings”. Nominalization is wholesale characterized as a negative thing, and examples are given from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, published in 1946 to support this assertion.

It’s true, there’s ambiguous, unclear writing out there, and over-nominalization is the culprit in some of those cases. But I would never tell a developing academic writer to avoid nominalization outright. It’s one of the key characteristics of academic writing, for better or for worse, and so someone aiming to carry out academic work (e.g. the vast majority of EAP students) simply has to incorporate this feature into their writing (not to mention know how to parse complex noun phrases when they’re reading). It’s a linguistic feature of the community they’re hoping to join.

What I try to do is the following: I show authentic examples of nominalization taken from academic texts. We look at example of unclear or ambiguous sentences (of all types–not just those due to over-nominalization) and talk about how to avoid confusing writing. We take a sentence and practice “translating” it into the appropriate structures and style for different communicative contexts. I think this is a more helpful approach to writing development than simply telling people that nominalization is always bad.

I think the same way about the passive voice, which is probably the number one thing purveyors of popular writing advice tell writers to avoid at all costs, even though it is quite a common occurrence in academic writing.

On a side note, I wish people would move past those old chestnuts (Strunk and White, Orwell, etc.) in terms of writing style guides. Just because someone’s a great writer doesn’t mean they give good advice on language.


3 thoughts on “Beware of the “Beware Of”

    • It’s true that the video mentions “academics, lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers”…but as a teacher of EAP (and ESP in general), those are basically the contexts I’m training people to write in….anyway!

      And thanks for that Language Log link! A great takedown of this “prescriptivist poppycock” (as they’d call it…)

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