Lawyers are bad about creating zombie nouns by burying verbs. In drafting a brief for an appeal, we never mediate or litigate; we always engage in mediation or litigation. We never examine a witness or object to her testimony; we conduct an examination and make an objection. And we don’t settle cases; we effectuate settlements.
We will throw a suffix on most anything, transforming a perfectly fine verb into a weak noun.
Creating nouns from verbs and other parts of speech is called “nominalization.” It is one of the things that grade-school teachers warn about. Legal writing gurus do too.
In his book, The Winning Brief, Bryan A. Garner traces the legal profession’s penchant for turning verbs into nouns back to Jeremy Bentham’s “noun-preferring” principle. Garner advocates that we flip this thinking to choose verbs over nouns when we can. Almost every time we do, Garner explains, we:
- replace a longer noun with a shorter verb
- eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases
- avoid tepid be-verbs and the passive voice
- humanize the writing by focusing on who is doing what
Steven Stark, author of Writing to Win: The Legal Writer, agrees that lawyers should use strong verbs. If your verbs are weak, he concludes, so is your prose.
And lastly, Ross Guberman, author Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, observed that top lawyers use colorful verbs. It is hard to use colorful verbs when you bury them with suffixes, leaving the work to more tepid verbs.
Does this mean never nominalize? No. Author Henry Hitchings recently makes the case here and here that some nominalizations are fine. It is their overuse that strips the humanity out of what we write and say.
The key is recognizing what we are doing when we do it. In editing a brief, I almost always spell check for -tion, -sion, -ment, -ence, –ance, and -ity. These suffixes may uncover buried verbs that are capable of resurrection. Or should I say buried verbs that I may resurrect?
Any thoughts on turning verbs into nouns? Please leave a reply or reach me here. In the meantime, please enjoy this video on zombie nouns –