tips for making the concept a reality — University Affairs

Clarify your concepts by structuring your work around nominal peaks and concrete valleys.


One of the things that drew me to literary studies was all the fun theory. But it turns out that “theory is fun” is not a universal perspective! I find conceptual language really useful in my work, and I know why my work is important, but I struggle to make these concepts real for others. I was told that my writing was “in the air”. Any tips for bringing it back down to earth?

– Anonymous, English Literature

Response from Dr. Editor:

To answer this question, I turned to my colleague YZ Frankelwho shares the following:

“Get rid of the nominalizations! is one of the most common (good) editing tips you’re likely to get. Nominalizations – “zombie names”, as Helen Sword calls them – turn actions into abstract nouns, obscuring their actors. For example, instead of writing ‘individuals, businesses and corporations engaged in trade and barter of goods and services in private markets’, we write ‘capitalism’.

The conceptual language makes it possible “to simplify and schematize complex material in such a way as to be able to say something unexpected” (Graeber 2006) – which is a crucial aspect of humanities research. But abstract language can increase the imaginative effort needed to understand your research, which David Graeber calls “interpretive work”. More interpretive work means a heavier cognitive load for your reader; heavier cognitive load means more what Chris Olah and Shan Carter call “research debt”; and more research debt makes your work harder to read and digest, decreasing your chances of being influential and cited. In other words, zombie names suck the life out of your writing – and your reader!

For academics in general – and humanities researchers in particular – abstractions are an unavoidable occupational hazard, and therefore protection against zombies is a professional necessity. Our concepts must not overshadow the concrete issues – practical, political or ethical – of our research. When we look at how clear writers breathe some life into their zombie names, we see a common pattern that I like to call “nominal peaks, concrete valleys.” To visualize this model, I will first show you the content of a STEM text and then a humanities text using – focus on what the tool tells us about the use of nominalizations in the text.

Article by Gabriel Goh et al. “Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks” (2021) is the first example:

As this graph shows, in the article by Dr. Goh et al., the nominalizations are grouped, mainly into three nominal peaks – and after each peak, there is a sharp drop in the number of nominalizations. These zombie nouns are not only grouped spatially, but also semantically. “Emotion” is one of their key zombie nouns, and it’s semantically related to the others in the first noun peak: “expression” and “happiness” (highlighted in purple, below); also part of this nominal peak are ‘incarceration’ (associated with the feeling of persecution), ‘question’ (associated with the feeling of curiosity), ‘sadness’, ‘depression’, ‘treatment’ and ‘the anxiety”.

Later nominalizations are grouped around the key term “region”: “immigration”, “ethnicity” and “terrorism”. The last nominal peak gathers zombie nouns that describe the function of the software they are studying: “visualization”, “vision”, “activation”, “function”, “information”, “discussion”. Even using a large number of nearby abstract terms, Dr. Goh et al. keep their text readable by ensuring that these nominations are linked and form discrete semantic groups.

The passages in which the names of zombies fall – the concrete valleys – are those where authors use specific examples or data to unpack their abstractions. This can be accomplished with definitions, examples, experiences, or even personification. Dr. Goh et al. focus on experiences and examples; the passage after the first nominal peak, for example, dives into the concrete valley with a case study of “African neurons”.

To put it bluntly, Dr. Goh et al. make equally conscious choices about their use of the passive voice. Like zombie nouns, the passive voice can obscure its actors, which means that zombie names + passive voice = opacity. To avoid this, Dr. Goh et al. keep passives grouped and staggered with zombie names. Let’s look at the tool graph for the passive voice:

In Dr. Goh et al.’s text, the passive voice tends to peak as zombie nouns dip into the concrete valley, so passive and nominal peaks alternate like a wave function. Nominal spikes are bridged by passive spikes which, when used strategically, help flesh out nearby zombie names emphasizing what is Where was done. As we see above, the passives peak early in the article, before the first nominal peak. Because the nominal spike focuses on two types of IA neurons (the aforementioned “emotion” and “region” neurons), the passive spike that precedes it lays down some of the foundations for how they work:

Humanities scholars like you, dear writer, use similar methods. Take for example the introduction to the feminist theoretician Sara Ahmedthe monograph The cultural politics of emotion:

Dr. Ahmed’s coherent introduction, like Dr. Goh et al.’s article, displays the same dynamic of ups and downs, from the abstract to the concrete. And like Dr. Goh et al. she carefully balances her zombie names with other parts of speech. This is evident when we examine Dr. Ahmed’s use of “to be:”

While the verbs “to be” can make unexciting prose, they are essential when defining terms. Dr. Ahmed’s two densest peaks of “to be” verbs are around two of his four highest nominalization peaks. The first peak of the verb “to be”, for example, represents the point where she explains a central concept – her theory of emotion. Dr. Ahmed moves from nominal peak to concrete valley through real and political examples and careful definition of terms. She begins by quoting the propaganda of the far-right British National Front. Using “to be” verbs, she unpacks what is implicit in their propaganda:

By alternating between abstraction (measured here by the proxy of nominalization density) and concrete details (measured by the proxy of verbs “to be”), Dr. Ahmed clearly positions his work and concepts in important conversations. ongoing political, academic and cultural.

One final point to note: the density of zombie nouns decreases over time in all the examples above, reaching a low point at the very end of the text. This gives us some insight into the issue of crafting strong conclusions: with all the interpretive work behind you, the conclusion is the perfect space to reinforce the most important policy, practical, or ethical implications of your research. When you help your reader connect your work to something tangible — an issue that matters — your research becomes easier to understand, process, remember, and, if you’re lucky, cite.

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