In summer 2013, I wrote a series of articles on zombie rules for Visual Thesaurus. The series proved popular, and I was inspired to do more research.
The term zombie rule was introduced by Arnold Zwicky to describe a usage rule that we’re taught to follow but that doesn’t actually exist. It has no basis in fact or, sometimes, no longer does. But it shuffles along like a zombie, attacking us with its insistence.
Copyeditors are at particular risk of being attacked. We aim for correctness, precision, and elegance, but we have little time to do proper research. If we’re told by someone we trust (often a beloved English teacher or mentor), we take the rule on faith.
No one is immune from zombie rules. Not even me.
In fall 2013, I tweeted about the difference between use and utilize. But Jan Freeman and John McIntyre pointed out the fallacy of this rule. I don’t know where I heard the rule, but I followed it because it was useful when editing business copy, which is notoriously loaded with utilize. Had I looked in a dictionary, I would have seen that utilize means “to make use of, especially for profit.”
In the course of my research, I’ve discovered that zombie rules tend to hunt in packs. While you might not notice one zombie following you, an entire pack becomes obvious. And then you can turn around to hunt them instead.