Recognize and make nominalizations work for you

Nominalizations aren't all bad. Here's how to actively choose to include them in your writing (and not accidentally fall into their use).

Ordinarily, we think of things called nominal as small or without substance. Not so the multisyllabic nominalization. It corresponds with the definition, noun-like. Nothing wrong with a noun, of course; it’s that troubling suffix -like that should waggle our antennae. Why? Because too many of these common masqueraders can clog your writing faster than stuffing panty hose down the drain.

A nominalization takes a lovely adjective or lively verb and turns it into a noun, a thing. Sometimes writers use them to make their writing sound highfalutin – a bad idea. It is the language of bureaucracies, stuffy academics, and others who like to obscure meaning by trotting out big vocabularies. Here are a couple of examples: 

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The misuse of nominalizations can obscure otherwise vivid language.

Can you pick out the nominalizations? (Yes, there are two.) The first is misuse: a perfectly serviceable verb in other sentences, but used as a noun here. The second is nominalization itself: it turns the adjective nominal (using the noun-like definition) into a noun. So, without the nominalizations, the sentence might read: Dexter misused nominal words, turning otherwise vivid language obscure.

See what happened there? We not only have substituted the stronger verb misused for can, but we also have a person doing the action. (If you want to hide Dexter’s blunder, perhaps you’ll keep the original.) We needed two words – “nominal words” – to return nominalization to its adjective role or to its verb nominalize. Why not keep nominalization, then, and save a word? A reasonable point; hold that thought for the time being.

Let’s try another clogging example:

The description of the horse’s jump provided a surprise to the owner and a show of the skill of the trainer. (21 words)

Our nominalizations here are description, jump, surprise, show, and skill. Notice the abundance of preposition phrases: of the horse’s jump, to the owner, of the skill, of the trainer. They make me feel like I’m galloping along on that horse! Here’s a (mostly) de-nominalized version with no prepositional phrases:

The trainer described how the horse jumped, surprising the owner and showing the trainer’s skill. (15 words)

In this sentence, we know who described the action, and the horse (now appropriately acting as the noun it is, rather than as an adjective) actively jumped. We also eliminated that dull verb provided, adequately handled by the present participles surprising and showing, which feel more active. We might have stuck with verbs by creating two sentences:

The trainer described how the horse jumped. It surprised the owner and showed the trainer’s skill. (16 words)

If you noticed we’re left with one nominalization, skill, bravo! We might have returned it to adjective status with something like showing how skillful the trainer was, but that would have been wordier. (Keep holding that thought.) Moreover, we reduced the original lumbering 21-word sentence to a 15- or 16-word one.

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And one more: Ivan’s expression (nominalization) was one of annoyance (nominalization) in the query (nominalization) he sent about the delay (nominalization) in the publication (nominalization) of the book could become Ivan expressed his annoyed feelings when he queried about why publishing the book was delayed. 

While you may have noticed some of the morphed verbs and adjectives above, often these nominalizations don’t pop out at us. A tip to recognizing them: They often end with -ance, -ence, -ery, -ment, -ness, -sion, -son, -tion, and more. (Notice some of these above.) Additional examples include assurance, deliverance, prudence, discovery, argument, carelessness, comprehension, comparison, creation – all nominalizations. Of course, exceptions abound: analysis, belief, clarity, failure, and other examples you’ve just seen. Then there are sneakier nominalizations that look the same as their verb and adjective forms. Take decrease: Angelica decreased (verb) the number of commas versus Angelica sought a decrease (nominalization) in the number of commas. Clearly, the first is best. Other such nominalizations include attempt, cause, increase, and need.

Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup offer some typical patterns that often produce nominalizations in their book, Style. First, when you’re cruising for lifeless verbs to eliminate, such as be, have, and seem verbs, notice that there may be a nominalization as its subject, as in The judgement (nominalization) of the group is that the article should be published. A nominalization may also come after such a verb: Nasreen proceeded in the edit (nominalization) of the book. (Notice that while proceeded isn’t a be, have, or seem verb, it is vague, an action hard to visualize.) A third pattern involves the subject delayer phrases it is, there is, there are. Example: It is the feeling (nominalization) of Enrique that the facts need to be checked. Another pattern involves one nominalization as subject of a weak verb followed by another nominalization: The editor’s belief (nominalization) is that the research (nominalization) was carelessly done. 

Finally, one pattern that doesn’t involve weak verbs: two or more nominalizations connected by prepositional phrases. For example, Tameca’s examination of the organization of the manuscript was helpful. Williams and Bizup suggest we might retain the second nominalization in this sort of sentence: Tameca examined the manuscript’s organization. They also suggest that sometimes we can return nominalized action words to their verb state using a how or why clause. Here’s how that might work: Tameca examined how the book was organized. 

By now you may be throwing up your hands, asking what is wrong with edit, publication, query, research, organization, and many other nominalizations we use all the time? Absolutely nothing. They are concepts, a sort of shorthand, that can streamline language. There are other beneficial uses as well. Sometimes we use nominalizations to name something in the previous sentence: Jolene accepted the award gracefully. Her acceptance (nominalization)… 

And as we mentioned previously, occasionally nominalizations can actually create less wordy sentences. For example, they can route out wordy expressions like “the fact that.” Consider The fact that Kai succeeded… versus Kai’s success

So, nominalizations aren’t all bad. They’re in the language for a reason. Imagine if I had eliminated all the “nominalization” nominalizations in this article, replacing them with “adjectives” or “verbs turned into nouns.” The point is to actively choose them, not accidentally fall into their use. That’s what artistry – and editing – is about, isn’t it? 

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—Gail Radley is the author of 29 books for young people and numerous articles for adults, including,  “The Devil Knocking” from the December 2017 issue of The Writer. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, Florida.