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The Write Stuff

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The Write Stuff

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December 2017

By Alan Crawford

Editor of Impact

This is the first installment of a new series on writing tips. I hope you find it helpful; feel free to contact me at [email protected] with any questions.

I read a blog post from a PR firm the other day that referred to something called a “customer journey map.” That’s a wonderful/dreadful example of what Jacques Barzun called “the noun plague.” The noun plague refers to the excessive and thoughtless use of nouns (especially abstract ones) as adjectives, adverbs and verbs.

In Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Barzun offers this example from an Army Medical Service manual: It’s important to “insure unit level medical capability.” All that means, apparently, is, “Make sure there’s a doctor in the tent.”

While no law prohibits turning nouns into other parts of speech, we need to be careful about it. Some nouns used as other parts of speech have enriched our writing, making it more colorful. (Someone can “bankroll” a politician’s campaign, for example.)

Alan Crawford is a published author and journalist who, in his books and articles, has written on the period of the United States’ founding and the American tradition.

Translating Gobbledygook

But abstract nouns rushed into service as adjectives, adverbs and verbs can make our meaning obscure. We often lapse into pseudo-scientific jargon, Barzun says, out of a “desire to appear learned.” To some writers, abstractions evidently suggest technical objectivity. (We say the effect of something is “positive” or “negative,” for example, not “good or bad.”)

But an important job of people in the communications business is to translate technical gobbledygook into language everyone understands, not the opposite.


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Contact Alan Crawford, editor, Impact Newsletter at [email protected]

Additional Resources

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