Eliminate Zombie Nouns and Minimize Passive Voice

Vol. 42 No. 9


Bryan A. Garner (@bryanagarner), President of LawProse Inc., is the author of The Elements of Legal Style , Legal Writing in Plain English , The Winning Brief , The Winning Oral Argument , The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style , and many other books. Since 1994, he has been editor in chief of all editions of Black’s Law Dictionary.

One thing you’re certain to be doing in a law-related job is writing. So take every word you write seriously. You’ll be judged by your words.

At the sentence level, two perils can spoil your writing: zombie nouns and passive voice. You need to be thoroughly familiar with them, or else they’re unavoidable.

The first consists of burying the action in an abstract noun. Linguists call this “nominalization” (itself a long abstract noun) because to nominalize is to form a noun. I call the result of this process a “zombie noun” because it’s essentially both dead and deadening. You can make a contribution (worse) or you can contribute (better). You can have a discussion about the issues (worse) or you can discuss the issues (better). You can make provision for indemnification of someone (worse) or you can indemnify someone (better). Look especially for words ending in –ion. Examples are endless.

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