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Monday, May 31, 2010

Nominalization and Why You Should (Usually) Avoid It

Avoiding nominalization is one of the lesser-known principles of good writing, and certainly one of the least understood.

So in today's post I thought I'd try to explain what exactly nominalization is, and how avoiding it can improve your writing.

In a nutshell, nominalization describes the process of turning verbs into abstract nouns. Here's an ordinary sentence:

We will investigate the problem.

And here is a version with nominalization:

We will perform an investigation into the problem.

In the second sentence, the verb 'investigate' has been turned into the abstract noun 'investigation'. This has required the insertion of another verb, 'perform'. One common characteristic of nominalisation is that it makes text more verbose.

Nominalization is common in scientific, academic and bureaucratic writing, perhaps because it makes the text sound more official and 'objective'. It is not ungrammatical, but high levels of nominalization can make any book or article sound flat and dull.

Here are some examples of verbs with the corresponding nominalizations...

complete - completion
discuss - discussion
meet - meeting
provide - provision
arrange - arrangement

Removing or at least reducing nominalization can help make text more concise and readable. Here are some example sentences including nominalizations, followed by versions in which the nominalizations have been edited out...

We held a discussion about the proposal.
We discussed the proposal.

The new tools generated an improvement in productivity.
The new tools improved productivity.

The implementation of the report was performed by a project team.
The report was implemented [or applied] by a project team.

Notice how the versions without nominalizations are more concise in every case.

Occasionally, as with the passive voice, nominalization may be acceptable, and even preferred. For example: 'This research paper proposes a solution to the problem of X' might be preferred to, 'This research paper solves the problem of X'. The version without nominalization is more concise, but expressing it in this way would be regarded within the academic community as immodest and excessive.

In general, however - and certainly when writing or editing for a general readership - it's best to keep nominalizations to a minimum. This is one of the key principles advocated by the Plain English Campaign, and any company wanting to achieve the Campaign's 'Crystal Mark' for clarity in its written communications would be expected to apply it.

Photo Credit: Seven-Deadly-Sins on Flickr

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd never considered this before but I think you've just explained something I've often wondered - why some peoples' letters (tho, hopefully not novels) read like inter-office memos!


10:13 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Ali. Yes, excessive use of nominalization, along with passive voice, can certainly produce this effect!

11:10 AM  
Blogger Juliette Wade said...

I like this very much. You've explained nominalization succinctly and well...and I know a number of people who might benefit from seeing this post! Thanks!

3:39 AM  
Blogger Lydia Sharp said...

Excellent post!

10:49 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for your kind comment, Juliette.

9:41 PM  
Blogger KeriJ said...

I agree completely. One of the things we go back to time and time again in the workshops I participate in is "tight" writing. And I think this falls into that area. If you can hack it up and make it come out more concise and to the point, that's what you should do. A teacher once mentioned that many people pick this habit up in school, when they have a minimum word count to meet. Great post!

Keri J

5:08 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Lydia and Keri. I agree, avoiding nominalization is one aspect of making your writing tighter and more concise.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It was very ineresting. I learned a new word I could use 'verbose' lol.

11:49 AM  

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