Maybe you’ve heard folks complaining about how young people tend to verb their nouns—adulting comes to mind. These new word constructions come from the need to make a static thing dynamic. In the case of adulting, the fact of living an adult life isn’t just a state of being, but takes constant and active maintenance. Verbing your nouns shows this constant state of motion.
In writing, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to do the opposite: nouning your verbs. Called nominalization, the act of changing a verb into a noun takes a dynamic sentence and makes it motionless and stodgy. While there are valid reasons to noun your verbs at times (like hiding blame), most of the time it just kills your flow—and makes your writing wordy and ambiguous.
Understanding Nominalization and Verb Phrases
Nominalization, or "nouning," is making a noun from a verb or an adjective. This article will focus on nouns made from verbs. In many cases, English speakers add noun suffixes (-ment, -tion) to verbs or adjectives to turn them into nouns.
Common Examples of Verbs Being Nominalized:
We need these nouns in the language, but even experienced writers can quickly fall into the trap of combining these nouns with abstract verbs to sound formal, only to produce more convoluted writing.
Let's consider some common but ambiguous verb phrases that include nouns like these:
Ex: The office has restrictions on office supply purchases.
If the office "has restrictions," does that mean the office managers created the restrictions for the office employees, or that the entire office received restrictions from someone higher up? If the office is restricting something, is someone enforcing that restriction?
Ex: The state achieved compliance with counties in the spending agreement.
If the state "achieved compliance," who complied with whom? Who followed whose preferences?
determine a definition
Ex: The linguists determined a definition of the historical term.
If people determine a definition, does that mean they made it up themselves? Or that they found a definition for something among a confusing list of possible definitions?
While it is especially important for lawyers and government employees to avoid this level of ambiguity, all writers trying to explain something or win an argument benefit from avoiding nominalization. Your writing will be stronger if you can reduce expressions like these down to a single verb. Your arguments will become more concrete and more memorable because they will be clearer and more direct. Research has revealed many benefits of choosing a single verb (like decide) over a verb phrase in which the verb is generic and the nominalized direct object shows the important information (like make a decision).
Studies report that these [verb + noun] phrases:
- Are more abstract than verbs alone because they are often more metaphorical and/or use nouns and verbs with multiple meanings.
- Often obfuscate the actor and/or object of the sentence.
- Are rare in spoken English.
- Focus readers' attention on objects rather than actions (making it harder for readers to answer, "what happened?" after reading a narrative).
- Increase word count by an average of 26%.
- Hinder readers' understanding of how modifiers (such as prepositional phrases) connect to the rest of the sentence.
- Are useful only when describing academic theories, which are unchanging ideas, not actions that someone or something does.
- Hide the "real-world sequence" of events in a narrative.
- Are stored in a different memory center of the brain—one which makes subsequent recall and analysis more difficult.
- Are considered by college-level readers to be less interesting and harder to learn from.
Carolyn Hartnett, a researcher on the frequency of nominalizations in print media and college students' understanding of nominalizations, writes:
Nominalizations cannot be challenged; they give an advantage to the writer but a disadvantage to the audience. When nominalizations turn processes into objects, nothing requires treating them objectively. They can be misleading, vacuous, and exclusive. They make assumptions that increase difficulties in comprehension, and often they obscure or hide relevant information, de-emphasizing what is harmful to the position of the writer.
What Do We Do about Excess Nominalizations?
If you'd like to reduce nominalization in your writing, you can search documents for common verbs and for nominalization suffixes (such as -tion, -ment, and -ity), or you can let WordRake do the work for you. WordRake's advanced and specific algorithms reduce hundreds of unique nominalized noun phrases to more powerful single verbs.
When Ambiguity Gets the Better of Us All
One of the best things about WordRake’s editing process is that it keeps you in the driver’s seat: there is no “accept all” button, so you must review each suggestion to make sure it is saying exactly what you want. This is especially important when correcting for excess nominalizations. Just like a human reader, WordRake brings certain assumptions to the table when reviewing a piece of writing. While we usually get it right, in places where wording is ambiguous, WordRake’s algorithms sometimes choose wrong.
When this happens, you’re seeing exactly what a real reader may mistake about your meaning: nominalizations are ambiguous by nature. Take those misinterpretations as signposts to help you refine your words and clarify your purpose. These cases are the exception, but they still give valuable insights into how to improve your writing.
Raking for Nominalizations
Nominalizations are stereotypically common in legal and corporate writing for a reason: they sound formal, and they leave room for interpretation. This may seem like a useful strategy, but in practical terms, it’s always best to be clear about your meaning from the beginning. Wiggle room for you is also room for potential conflict. Consider this hypothetical report from an online department store in a common corporate and legal writing style:
This report provides a summary of summarizes the latest changes to the company's operations. After the human resources department performed an assessment of assessed employee perspectives on service efficiency, the team arrived at the conclusion that unnecessary concluded that unnecessary and redundant confirmation processes lead to the formation of help to form bottlenecks in product delivery processes. After conducting a review of reviewing the steps most employees implement when performing the transfer of purchased products from the warehouse to the third-party shipping partners, it was found that the average employee is required to make must make seven annotations in the mobile internal logistics app. Any time an annotation is not automatically approved, employees must directly make contact with contact the team member who is able to manually give their approval of approve that step. The human resources team has worked together with the IT department to provide a solution solve this problem. Regarding As for the step-by-step annotations, the number of screens and clicks required by the mobile logistics app has been reduced. Additionally, flaws in the approval algorithm have been resolved, and a new randomized manual approval system has been implemented system has been put into practice. Now, it is expected that employees will need to obtain fewer manual approvals.
This report summarizes the latest changes to the company's operations. After the human resources department assessed employee perspectives on service efficiency, the team concluded that unnecessary and redundant confirmation processes help to form bottlenecks in product delivery processes. After reviewing the steps most employees implement when performing the transfer of purchased products from the warehouse to the third-party shipping partners, it was found that the average employee must make seven annotations in the mobile internal logistics app. Any time an annotation is not automatically approved, employees must directly contact the team member able to manually approve that step. The human resources team has worked with the IT department to solve this problem. As for the step-by-step annotations, the number of screens and clicks required by the mobile logistics app has been reduced. Additionally, flaws in the approval algorithm have been resolved, and a new randomized manual approval system has been put into practice. Now, employees will need to obtain fewer manual approvals.
- Initial word count: 190 words
- Final word count: 162 words
- The number of nominalized verb phrases reduced down to one verb: 8
- The number of passive verbs removed: 2
WordRake can save you time, optimize your explanations, and impress your readers. Start your free trial today.
About the Author
Danielle Cosimo is a Language Usage Analyst for WordRake. Before joining the team, she was a translator and editor for non-native English speakers applying to degree programs in the United States and the UK. Danielle is formally trained in linguistics and has a certificate in computer programming. She is fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. She applies her interdisciplinary knowledge to create WordRake’s editing algorithms.