Nominalisation could be the reason your writing stinks

by | Jan 27, 2017 | Business writing, Language & grammar | 0 comments

A while back I wrote about the passive voice and why it produces flat, unconvincing academic and business writing. Now I’m going to talk about an equally fiendish enemy of good writing – a little thing called nominalisation.

Nominalisation, huh? What’s that?

Nominalisation is when you take a perfectly good verb and turn it into a noun.

Let’s take the word ‘communication’ as an example. This is a noun formed from the verb ‘communicate’.

Or ‘achievement’, the noun version of the verb ‘achieve’.

You can nominalise pretty much any verb in the English language. Just for fun, here are a few more:

identify -> identification

agree -> agreement

introduce -> introduction

summarise -> summary

explore -> exploration

And so on.

Sometimes, the nominalisation (noun version) is the same as the verb version:

change (verb) -> change (noun)

study (verb) -> study (noun)

increase (verb) -> increase (noun)

(Note that in the case of ‘increase’ we tend to place the emphasis on a different syllable depending on whether we are using it as a verb or noun: increase for a verb; increase for a noun.)

OK, I get it. So what’s the problem? Nominalisation seems pretty handy to me.

You’re right – it’s handy in a lot of circumstances. Changing a verb into a noun allows us to treat it as a concept, rather than an action, which can often make sentences clearer and simpler.

I think we can all agree that:

Congratulations on your achievement!

is better than:

Congratulations on the thing you achieved!

The problem is that business and academic writing tends to take nominalisation to the extreme.

Many academic style guides recommend using nominalisation because it makes your writing more ‘formal’. In reality, all it does is make your writing needlessly abstract and complex.

Business people also tend to go overboard with nominalisation. Does the following sentence sound like something you might read at your workplace?

We undertook a thorough review of the candidates, and a decision was made to make an offer for the position to Professor I.P. Daly.

This sentence has three nouns that are actually doing the work of verbs: review, decision and offer. As a result, it’s bloated, boring and not particularly easy to read.

So let’s rewrite that sentence by turning those nouns back into verbs:

We thoroughly reviewed the candidates and decided to offer the position to Professor I.P Daly.

Much nicer, right? Admittedly, not the sort of quote you’d stick on your fridge or get tattooed on your forearm, but it’s a hell of a lot clearer than the noun-filled monstrosity above.

Breaking it down, there are two main problems with nominalisation:

Nominalisation removes any sense of ‘action’ from your writing.

One of the first grammar rules we learn is that verbs are ‘action’ words.

Now, you might not think of your organisational strategy or academic literature review as particularly action-packed documents. But humans tend to respond a lot better to verbs than their nominalised noun equivalent.

That’s because verbs usually describe a concrete action that humans can easily visualise, while the noun version describes an abstract concept that is more difficult to picture.

By replacing all those nice concrete verbs with abstract nouns, you’re sucking a lot of the life, colour and movement out of your text.

That’s why you don’t see great novelists using loads of nominalisation. Here’s the first sentence of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Ooooh, lots of nice verbs in there! Now, imagine that Salinger spent his whole life up until 1951 reading nothing but corporate reports and research papers. He might have written the first line like this instead:

If you really have a preference to receive an aural communication about it, the first thing you’ll probably have a preference for the knowledge of is the place of my birth, and what my lousy childhood was like, and my parents’ occupations and all before they undertook my birth, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t possess a sentiment to go into it, if you have a preference for knowledge of the truth.

Not exactly the start of a 20th-century classic, is it?

Nominalisation encourages excess waffle

Because every sentence in English needs to have at least one noun and one verb, changing a verb into a noun often means you then need to introduce a new verb so the sentence still makes sense.

Take the following example from a hypothetical research paper:

We investigated sixteen different frog habitats.

Nothing wrong with that sentence. It has a verb (‘investigated’), a subject noun (‘we’) and an object noun-phrase (‘sixteen different frog habitats’).

But if we’re following our academic style guide, which tells us we should nominalise verbs wherever possible, then we need to replace the verb ‘investigated’ with it’s noun equivalent: ‘investigation’.

But ‘we investigation sixteen different frog habitats’ is not a proper sentence, because it doesn’t have a verb at all!

So, we have to introduce a new, entirely empty verb to describe the action we are performing on our additional noun:

We conducted an investigation into sixteen different frog habitats.

That makes sense, but it’s 50 per cent longer than the original sentence and adds absolutely no extra information. It’s waffle, pure and simple. And not the good kind:

nominalisation creates excess waffle

Oh my god, you’re right! What’s the best way to get rid of unnecessary nominalisations in my own writing?

Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast rule for determining when you should turn your nouns back into verbs. But here are a few things to look for that will help you spot needless nominalisations:

1. When the noun comes after a verb with little specific meaning, such as ‘undertake’, ‘conduct’, ‘perform’ or ‘concerned’.

For example:

We undertook an investigation into male hair loss.

We conducted an investigation into male hair loss.

We performed an investigation into male hair loss.

Our investigation was concerned with male hair loss.

These can all be written far more simply as:

We investigated male hair loss.

2. When the noun comes after some form of ‘there is’

There is an internal investigation underway. -> We are investigating internally.

There was a misrepresentation concerning Mr Drumpf. -> Mr Drumpf was misrepresented.

There will be further discussions at the board level. -> The board will discuss further.

We have a need for more information -> We need more information.

3. When the noun ends in one of the suffixes commonly associated with nominalisations

Nominalisations often (but not always) end in one of the following suffixes:

  • -tion (investigation, communication)
  • -sion (persuasion, admission)
  • -ment (movement, agreement)
  • -ance (variance, resistance)
  • -ence (persistence, reference)
  • -al (refusal, betrayal)
  • -tude (gratitude, multitude).

Searching for these suffixes in your document might reveal a few sneaky nominalisations you can happily get rid of.

OK, and when should I be using nominalisation?

Again, it’s difficult give any hard and fast rules for when you should use the noun form of a verb. But here are a few loose guidelines:

1. When you want to count instances of an action

Only nouns can be counted, so if you want to refer to the number of times an action has been performed, you’ll probably need to nominalise it. Compare:

This is our third investigation into the missing post-it notes.

with

This is the third time the missing post-it notes have been investigated

or

We are investigating the missing post-it notes for the third time.

All of these sentences are perfectly acceptable, but the first one (which uses the nominalisation ’investigation’) is probably the neatest.

2. When you really are talking about abstract concepts

One of the most powerful things about nominalisation is that it lets us package up complex concepts into a single word.

For example, throughout this post I have referred to the concept of ‘nominalisation’. This noun is, of course, a nominalisation in itself.

If I wanted to keep this concept in the verb form, I would have to repeatedly refer to ‘the process of nominalising’, which would get messy pretty quickly.

Similarly, it’s much neater to say ‘multiplication is difficult’ than ‘the act of multiplying is difficult’.

This is particularly helpful for academics, whose writing nearly always involves discussing complex or abstract concepts.

So by all means use nominalisations like ‘joined-up governance’ or ’quantum superposition’ if it makes your work easier to understand.

Just remember that it’s a slippery slope, and everyday actions like ‘persuading’, ‘agreeing’ or ‘communicating’ rarely need to be made into nouns.

3. When you want to attach a lot of extra information to a verb

Consider the following two ways of writing a sentence:

  1. The board is investigating.
  2. The board has launched an investigation.

Sentence 1 uses a standard verb, while sentence 2 uses the nominalisation ‘investigated’. Based on what I’ve said above, sentence 1 is the simpler (and better) approach.

But what if we want to add a few words to describe the investigation?

With sentence 2, it’s easy:

The board has launched an immediate, wide-ranging investigation.

Now, let’s try adding the same information to sentence 1:

The board is investigating immediately in a wide-ranging manner.

Hmmm…that sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it?

The problem is that you can’t attach adjectives (such as ‘immediate’ or ‘wide-ranging’) directly to a verb. In the case of sentence 1, we can use the adverb form of immediate (‘immediately’). But because there’s no adverb form of ‘wide-ranging’, we have to introduce a whole new verb (‘manner’) to squeeze all the information in.

But by turning the verb into the noun ‘investigation’ (as in sentence 2) we can just tack on as many adjectives as we like. Neat, huh?

4. When you want to distance yourself from something you did wrong

The passive voice lets you partially shirk responsibility for stuffing up because you can leave the person performing an action out of the sentence entirely:

Active voice: I broke the vase.

Passive voice: The vase broke.

If you also include a nominalisation, you can turn your confession into an abstract, practically meaningless jumble of words without actually telling a lie!

A vase breakage occurred.

(I probably wouldn’t care if you broke my vase, but if you owned up to it with a terribly written sentence like that I’d definitely ban you from my house for life.)

You’ll often notice politicians using this form of sentence, particularly when facing up to a mistake or attempting to lessen the impact of a negative policy announcement.

Can you also nominalise adjectives?

Yes. Just to confuse things, you can also create nominalisations from adjectives. Here are some examples:

difficulty (formed from difficult)

happiness (formed from happy)

stupidity (formed from stupid)

ignorance (formed from ignorant)

The main points on nominalising verbs also apply to nominalising adjectives – it can be useful at times, just don’t over do it.

And if you want to seek and destroy nominalised adjectives in your writing, try running a search for words ending in -ness, -ty or -ance.

Whew! Can you go over the main points again for me?

Sure thing:

  • Nominalisation is when you form a noun from a verb.
  • Nominalisation turns an action into a concept, which can be very useful.
  • Nominalisation tends to remove action and colour from your writing, and encourages the use of ‘waffle’. So you should only use it when absolutely necessary.
  • Do use nominalisation when you want to refer to abstract concepts, count instances of an action or add extra information to a verb.

What should I do if my verbs are suffering from an identity crisis?

Nominalisation is a tricky thing to wrap your head around, and even trickier to fix in your own writing. If you need help preserving your endangered verbs and breathing life back into your writing, please get in touch.

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