Answered By: Jonathan Faerber (he/him/his)
Last Updated: May 23, 2023     Views: 25

Many words in English, such as “web page” or "essay" function primarily as nouns. But many others, like “investigation” or “composition” or “action”, are borrowed from other parts of speech. In the sentences below, for example, the quoted nouns from the last sentences are used as verbs (in italic font): 

  • The police investigated the crime.
  • She will compose an autobiography.
  • We must act immediately.

The author Helen Sword (2012) coined the term “zombie nouns” to refer to words like "investigation" because they lose their active function as verbs when converted to nouns in sentences such as:

  • The police completed their investigation of the crime.
  • She wrote an autobiographical composition.
  • We must take immediate action.

While these last three sentences are grammatical, they require more words to express the action contained in verbs like “investigate”, “compose”, “act”, and so on. For this reason, a large number of “zombie nouns” can obscure actions and make your sentences more difficult for others to understand.

For more information on zombie nouns and for tips on writing more concisely, see Concise Writing in the RRU Sentences and Style guide.


Sword, H. (2012, July 23). Zombie nouns. The New York Times.