Zombie Nouns: What Are Nominalizations?

by | Aug 4, 2020 | GrammarSpot | 0 comments

Zombie Nouns: What Are Nominalizations?

by | Aug 4, 2020 | GrammarSpot | 0 comments

What are nominalizations? Well, have you heard of a zombie noun? The phenomenon of turning a verb or clause into a noun or noun phrase is really called “nominalization.” International writing expert Helen Sword coined the term “zombie noun” because nominalizations suck the life out of sentences.

Nominalizations are what separate formal writing from informal (real-world?) writing, and they are prevalent in business, legal, government and academic writing.

An easy example of this writing style is to turn “distort” into “distortion” or “assume” into “assumption.” In these examples, “distortion” and “assumption” are nominalizations of the original verbs.

Here are a few more nominalization examples, this time using adjectives:

Nominalization Adjective
Applicability Applicable
Intensity Intense
Slowness Slow

Do Nominalizations Help or Muddy Up Writing?

Is It OK to use nominalizations in your writing? The answer depends somewhat on which side of the fence you’re on at any given time. Arguments for nominalization center around the concept of “formal” or “academic” writing. The reason cited is nominalization gives writing a passive, more formal feel. Basically, these arguments think using nominalization makes writers sound smarter. Arguments against nominalization focus on the passive voice, which extends sentence length unnecessarily, and the wordy, weak phrases it creates.

1. How Nominalizations Can Muddy Up Your Writing

what is nominalization

It is important to note that nominalization is a grammatically correct practice, but it can muddy your writing if it’s overused, as the following example illustrates:

Nominalization: On the basis of the analysis, which was made of the data which were collected, it is suggested that the null hypothesis can be rejected.

Concise Verb: Once we analyzed the collected data, we could reject the null hypothesis.

The first example contains 25 words and two instances of nominalization: “on the basis of the analysis” and “of the data which were collected.” Overusing nominalization makes this sentence difficult to read. In the second example, there are two concise verbs: “analyzed” and “reject,” and the sentence consists of twelve words. The concise verb example is much clearer and easier to understand because it uses action verbs.

My favorite example comes from Helen Sword:

Nominalization: “The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

Concise Verb: “Writers who overload their sentences with nouns derived from verbs and adjectives tend to sound pompous and abstract.”

While both sentences have a similar word count (19 and 18 words respectively), the second sentence is by far the clearest.

So, yes, nominalizations can muddy up our writing, but there are also situations where they can help.

 

2. How Nominalizations Can Help Your Writing

benefits of nominalization

Nominalizations can help your writing when you want to refer to something a second time while avoiding tedious and confusing repetition. Consider the following example. Which sentence is clearer?

The Olympic Committee canceled the 2020 summer Olympic games. The cancellation was not unexpected.

OR

The Olympic Committee canceled the 2020 summer Olympic games. It was not unexpected that the committee would cancel the games.

The first option, which includes the nominalization “cancellation,” is the more coherent of the two.

Another instance is when providing a common name. For example, “consult” is a verb, and “consultant” is the noun form. “Consultant” also describes a person or type of job. Which sentence is clearer?

The consultant advised us to sell our stocks.

OR 

Our decision to consult a professional resulted in the advice to sell our stocks.

In this example, using the nominalization “consultant” is clearer than if we had revised the sentence to use the word “consult.” The first sentence is a rare instance when nominalization makes the sentence more concise.

According to most grammarians, the biggest problem with nominalization is overuse. In areas outside of academia and legal fields, keep nominalization to a minimum, or, better yet, avoid using it altogether.

 

List of Nominalizations

list of nominalizations

Using verbs instead of nominalizations makes writing more concise. Use this table of nominalization examples to better understand how you can replace nominalizations with powerful verbs.

With Nominalization With a Concise Verb
There is opposition among many people to wearing masks based on a disbelief of their ability to prevent virus transfer. Many people oppose masks because they don’t believe masks prevent virus transfer.
Our fee for the preparation of and the filing of an appeal is $100.00. Our fee to prepare and file an appeal is $100.00.
The assumption that creative ability has a relationship to intelligence warrants further examination. We must examine how creative ability relates to intelligence.
The dogs worked diligently to come to a resolution regarding the squirrel problem in the backyard. The dogs worked together to resolve the backyard squirrel problem.
The mother promised to take into consideration the good behavior of her child during quarantine. The mother promised to consider the child’s good behavior during quarantine.
They are in agreement. They agree.
She has a tendency to talk too much. She tends to be talkative.
This is an indication of how committed BKA Content is to providing high-quality writing. This indicates how committed BKA Content is to providing high-quality writing.
He made his apologies for blowing out the birthday candles early. He apologized for blowing out the birthday candles early. 
She made a decision to stop eating chocolate. She decided to stop eating chocolate.
The paper provided an analysis of Sasquatch fur. The paper analyzed Sasquatch fur.
There is a need for a book club. We need a book club.
We’d like to provide an understanding of why kids talk so much. We’d like to understand why kids talk so much.

 

Excessive nominalization is easy to spot when you know what to look for. Writer’s should beware of words with these endings:

  • -tion (make a recommendation = recommend)
  • -sion (come to a decision = decide)
  • -ment (in agreement with = agreed)
  • -ance (acted in defiance = defied)
  • -ency (has a tendency = tends)

 

One last warning: Watch out for the word “of,” as in “for the improvement of our results” (to improve our results) and “offered an explanation of” (explained). The Hemingway Editor program is a great tool for identifying passive voice created by nominalizations.

Remember, if the project you’re writing turns into a grammar apocalypse, go after the zombie nouns first! Feel free to share your apocalyptic grammar stories in the comments below.

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