Posted by: Jack Henry | May 23, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Concept Nouns

Good Monday morning, everyone. My subject today is a little bit dry, so take a sip of coffee (or whatever gets you going in the morning), and put on your thinking cap.

We have talked about the importance of avoiding passive voice (for example, you should avoid writing “The lunch was eaten,” and instead, you should write, “They ate lunch.”). One problem with passive voice is that it leaves out the subject of the sentence so the reader doesn’t know who is performing the action. Experts agree that passive voice weakens your writing and bores (and confuses) your reader.

The following information about concept nouns is from William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well (Zinsser 1998, 76). Zinsser comes at the topic of passive voice from a different angle, which I thought might be helpful.

Concept Nouns

Nouns that express a concept are commonly used in bad writing instead of verbs that tell what somebody did. Here are three typically dead sentences:

· The common reaction is incredulous laughter. [dbb – Who is laughing?]

· Bemused cynicism isn’t the only response to the old system. [dbb – Whose response are we talking about?]

· The current campus hostility is a symptom of the change. [dbb – Who is hostile? Professors? Students? Administration? Everyone?]

What is so eerie about these sentences is that they have no people in them. They also have no working verbs—only “is” or “isn’t.” The reader can’t visualize anybody performing some activity; all the meaning lies in impersonal nouns that embody a vague concept: “reaction,” “cynicism,” “response,” “hostility.” Turn these cold sentences around. Get people doing things:

· Most people laugh with disbelief.

· Some people respond to the old system by turning cynical; others say…

· It’s easy to notice the change—you can see how angry all the students are.

My revised sentences aren’t jumping with vigor, partly because the material I’m trying to knead into shape is shapeless dough. But at least they have real people and real verbs. Don’t get caught holding a bag full of abstract nouns. You’ll sink to the bottom of the lake and never be seen again.

OK, you can take your thinking cap off now and enjoy the rest of your day.

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

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