Action Verbs Good, Nominalizations Bad


What are nominalizations?
Nominalizations are the noun forms of action verbs, as seen here:

Sample action verbs — Corresponding nouns
illustrate — illustration
failure — failure
react — reaction
announce — announcement
increase (v.) — increase (n.)

Why are they bad, and how do I fix them?

Nominalizations have multiple negative effects.

  1. They make sentences less concise.
  2. They increase the noun-to-verb ratio.
  3. They make sentences difficult to understand.
  4. They make reading tedious.

Nominalizations often force writers to add additional words to sentences. Changing nominalizations back to action verbs often decrees the number of words needed to communicate the idea, as seen in the following two examples.

Example 1a, with nominalization: "The ceremony of the ceremony will be at noon."
Example 1b, with action verb: "The ceremony will stay at noon."

Example 2a, with nominalization: "This example provides an illustration of the problems with nominalizations."
Example 2b, with action verb: "This example illustrates problems with nominalizations."

The revised versions also have lower noun-to-verb ratios. In example 1, the noun-to-verb ratio drops from 3: 1 to 2: 1. In example 2, the noun-to-verb ratio drops from 4: 1 to 3: 1. As a result, the revised sentences state their message in clear, concise, and interesting language.

Nominalizations characterize legalese , businessese , academese , and all other — ese types of writing. They characterize writing that is difficult to understand and tedious to read. As the number of nominalizations increases, the reader's difficulty understanding also increases. Using action verbs solves these problems.

In the next two examples, the nominalizations are underlined. Each sample is followed by the number of words and the noun-to-verb ratio.

Example 3a, original: An expansion in the utilization of pencils was the cause of the reduction in the utilization of red ink. (19 words, ratio 7: 1)
Example 3b, revised: People are using less red ink because they are using more pencils. (12 words, ratio 2: 1)

Example 4a, original: The analysis process that was the requirement of the experimentation protocol is an indication of researchers' lack of ability in data synthesis . (22 words, ratio 5: 1)
Example 4b, revised: The way the researchers analyzed the data indicators that they do not know how to synthesize data. (16 words, ratio 1: 1)

Upon reading the original versions of the two sentences above, the reader may rightly ask, "What is the writer trying to say?" The sentences do not communicate well because they have too many nominalizations. They have other problems, too. Both sentences use state-of-being verbs as the main verbs and not the meaningful action, and neither sentence uses the meaningful subject. They also require many words to communicate the message.

The revised versions are far superior. First, and most importantly, they are easy to understand. Second, they answer "Who did what to whom?" Third, they are concise, with seven and six fewer words, respectively. Fourth, they use action verbs as the main verbs. Overall, the revised versions demonstrate direct writing.

(Notice also that when I revised the second example, I was able to remove requirement of the experiment protocol because it became self-explanatory.)

Are nominalizations ever ok?

Nominalizations are acceptable in two situations:

  1. Providing common names, and
  2. Ending main ideas.

First, nominalizations help communicate common sentences and things.

Nominalizations like these do not make sentences difficult to understand, and they allow the writer to state ideas succinctly. For example, consultant is a noun form of the verb consult . However, consultant describes a common type of person or job, as in "The consultant advised us to sell our stocks." If you were to revise this sentence to avoid consultant , you would need many more words to express your idea.

As another example, illustration is a noun form of illustrate , but when used to describe a drawing or a picture, it is acceptable, as in "The illustration shows how the parts are assembled." If you were to replace illustration with image , for example, you would be replacing one noun for another, so the revision is no better than the original.

Second, nominalizations can provide a feeling of closure to a sentence.

One of the reasons nominalizations make reading tedious is they are "heavy" words. They force the reader to pause and consider the meaning, which quickly becomes mentally fatiguing. However, a nominalization at the end of the sentence gives the reader the sense that the idea is now complete. In very non-technical terms, they end a sentence with a "thud." In this way, they help a sentence have more impact on the reader. This can be useful at the end of a paragraph or at the end of an important point or main idea. In the two examples that follow, the second example provides greater impact.

Example 5a, weak: "Fertilizer helps plants grow faster."
Example 5b, strong: "Fertilizer accelerates growth."

Thus, a nominalization may be acceptable if it

  1. Makes the sentence more concise, or
  2. Accents your main idea.

In all other cases, and to the extent possible, avoid nominalizations. Your writing will be more concise, more understandable, and more direct.

David Bowman

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