Nominalizations—verbs or adjectives that have been converted into nouns—are common sources of obscurity, wordiness, and needless complexity in professional writing. While nominalizations may seem more formal when they appear in phrases like “reach a decision” or “make an assumption,” that requires equating formality with stodginess.
Instead of accepting the stiff and boring writing that comes from tacking suffixes like -tion, -ment, -ence, and -ing onto verbs or adjectives to turn them into static nouns, look for the original verb, then amplify it. This will energize your writing and help you edit for clarity, brevity, and impact.
Understanding and Spotting Nominalizations
You can’t revive a drowsy nominalization if you can’t spot it, so identifying nominalizations is a critical step in the process. To spot nominalizations, pay attention to word endings and usage patterns. And because some nominalizations don’t take special endings, you must learn to recognize other ways verbs and adjectives become nouns.
The most widely recognized type of nominalizations takes new suffixes. The ones ending in -able, -ance, -ation, and -ment, as in performance, demonstration, and improvement are derived nominalizations. Those formed by adding the -ing suffix to a verb, such as running from run, are gerund nominalizations. Writing coaches particularly hate derived nominalization because they spawn so many extra words. We will focus on these.
Derived nominalizations have distinctive suffixes that identify them. Here are some common ones:
- -ability: This suffix creates nouns meaning a quality or capacity. For example, measurability from measure.
- -able: Nouns formed with this suffix describe a characteristic or suitability, such as teachable from teach.
- -ance: This suffix presents an action, process, or state. An example is performance from perform.
- -ation: The -ation words show a process. Words like exploration from explore contribute to a formal or academic style but can introduce ambiguity.
- -ence: This suffix shows a state or quality. In government writing, terms like compliance from comply or resilience from resilient are common.
- -ency: The -ency suffix forms nouns meaning a state or quality, like urgency from urgent.
- -ian: This suffix means someone associated with a particular thing or field, like musician from music.
- -ion: Words with this suffix refer to a process, such as evaluation from evaluate.
- -ism: This suffix represents a doctrine, belief, or system, such as capitalism from capital.
- -ity: This suffix means a state or condition, like mortality from mortal.
- -ment: This suffix forms nouns representing a state of being, such as alignment from align.
For completeness’ sake, in addition to derived and gerund nominalizations, there are infinitive nominalizations that include phrases starting with to followed by a verb, such as to examine in “To examine the evidence is important;” and zero nominalizations where verbs or adjectives are turned into nouns with no change in form like love (as in my love), run (as in a long run), or quiet (as in a sudden quiet).
3-Step Process for Revising Nominalizations
To energize your writing, first identify nominalizations, then find the verb of which they are the subject or object. Replace the entire verb + noun expression with active verbs, engaging adjectives, and concrete nouns. Converting nominalized verb phrases makes your sentences concise, clear, and logical. Try this structured three-step approach from Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb:
- Diagnose: First, locate the action. In a nominalized sentence, the main action is typically represented by the nominalization itself. If you’re not sure, start by checking the first seven or eight words of your sentence for abstract nouns. Look for the tell-tale suffixes like -tion, -ment, -ence discussed above. If the moving part of the sentence is a noun, not a verb, you’ve found your nominalization and diagnosed the problem.
- Analyze: Next, analyze your sentence, determining who is performing what action. If you have more than one possibility, choose the human, not an abstract organization or process. Locate any actions concealed within nominalizations to guide you in the revision process. Decide what needs to be the active verb and who or what needs to be the subject.
- Rewrite: Now, change the nominalization back into its verb form and restructure the sentence to make the actor the subject. You may need to start by matching verbs to their subjects. If you have more than one option, use the human you selected in the step above, then subordinate the rest of the ideas. Use logical connectors like because, if, when, and although when necessary.
Let’s apply the process to these nominalization patterns:
Pattern 1 – Nominalizations Accompanying Empty Verbs:
This pattern involves nominalizations serving as the subject or object of a sentence. Improve clarity and readability by replacing the verb and noun with an active verb. (Examples of empty verbs: is, has, seems, makes, provides, and gives.)
- Original with Nominalization: The corporation made an announcement of the merger.
- Identify the Nominalization: announcement (noun) --> announce (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The corporation announced the merger.
- Explanation: Made is an empty verb in the original, distancing the corporation from the action. The revision uses announced directly, eliminating the empty verb, and improving clarity.
- Original with Nominalization: The implementation of the new strategy was a decision made by the management.
- Identify the Nominalization: implementation (noun) --> implement (verb); decision (noun) --> decide (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The management decided to implement the new strategy.
- Explanation: The revised sentence is more direct and uses active voice. In the original, was is an empty connecting verb that separates management from their decision.
- Original with Nominalization: The assertion of the defendant’s rights was made by his lawyer.
- Identify the Nominalization: assertion (noun) --> assert (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The lawyer asserted the defendant’s rights.
- Explanation: The empty passive verb phrase was made in the original sentence separated the lawyer from the action. The revision directly connects the lawyer to the action of asserting rights.
Pattern 2 – Empty Sentence Openings Introducing Nominalizations:
Nominalizations often follow phrases like there is or there are. Turning these nominalizations into active verbs improves sentence flow and makes it easier to identify the acting agent.
- Original with Nominalization: There is an agreement between the two parties for a settlement of $1 million.
- Identify the Nominalization: agreement (noun) --> agree (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The two parties agreed to a $1 million settlement.
- Explanation: The revised sentence is more active and concise. The empty sentence opening there is in the original doesn’t clearly identify the actors, whereas the revised sentence directly names the two parties who are agreeing.
- Original with Nominalization: There is evidence supporting the hypothesis of climate change causing extreme weather events.
- Identify the Nominalization: supporting (gerund noun) --> support (verb), causing (gerund noun) --> cause (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The evidence supports the hypothesis that climate change causes extreme weather events.
- Explanation: The revision is more concise and directly links the action to the subject. The original sentence uses There is as an empty opening, which lacks specificity.
- Original with Nominalization: There is a correlation between student engagement and academic performance.
- Identify the Nominalization: correlation (noun) --> correlate (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: Student engagement correlates with academic performance.
- Explanation: The revised sentence is simpler and more direct. In the original, there is acts as an empty sentence opening that lacks a clear subject. The revision removes this and uses the active verb correlates to directly link student engagement with academic performance.
Pattern 3 – Preposition Pile-Ups Linking Nominalizations:
This pattern involves multiple nominalizations strung together with prepositions. Transforming these nominalizations into their active verb forms makes the action explicit and eliminates the need for additional prepositions. Examples of pile-ups: The evaluation of the performance and the analysis of the results; or the implementation of the solution and the measurement of its impact.
- Original with Nominalization: The execution of the project resulted in an improvement of our company’s reputation.
- Identify the Nominalization: execution (noun) --> execute (verb), improvement (noun) --> improve (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: The project improved our company’s reputation.
- Explanation: The revised sentence is simpler and more active. In the original, resulted in is an empty verb phrase that weakens the link between the project’s execution and the company’s reputation. The revision directly connects these ideas with the active verb improved.
- Original with Nominalization: We made a review of the statistical data and provided an analysis of the results.
- Identify the Nominalization: review (noun) --> review (verb), analysis (noun) --> analyze (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: We reviewed the statistical data and analyzed the results.
- Explanation: The original sentence uses nominalizations review and analysis, each connected by the preposition of which adds unnecessary complexity. The revision replaces these with active verbs and eliminates the prepositions, resulting in a more straightforward sentence.
- Original with Nominalization: The investigation of historical sources resulted in a reinterpretation of the event.
- Identify the Nominalization: investigation (noun) --> investigate (verb), reinterpretation (noun) --> reinterpret (verb)
- Rewrite the Sentence: We investigated historical sources and reinterpreted the event accordingly.
- Explanation: The original sentence has multiple nominalizations connected by prepositions (of, in). The revision converts these nominalizations into their verb forms and reduces prepositional phrases, improving clarity and highlighting the actor (we).
4 Times to Avoid Over-Editing Nominalizations
While nominalizations can complicate sentences, they also serve a valuable purpose, so knowing when to keep them can be helpful. They can smoothly connect sentences, replace awkward structures, name objects of verbs, refer to widely recognized ideas, or name abstract concepts for discussion. Nominalizations can also help link ideas to previous actions or concepts when using pronouns might be unclear. Here are four times where removing nominalizations would be over-editing:
1. Consolidating Actions or Events:
Nominalizations can compress intricate thoughts or a succession of events into a singular notion, providing a succinct summary.
- Sentence with Useful Nominalization: The vaccine’s introduction led to a decrease in cases.
- Longer Revised Sentence: The vaccine was introduced, which caused the cases to decrease.
2. Expressing Abstract Concepts:
By turning actions or descriptions into abstract terms, nominalizations can place emphasis on the important ideas being discussed.
- Sentence with Useful Nominalization: The study inspected the connection between stress and cardiovascular health.
- Revised Sentence Shifts Focus from Connection: The study examined how stress corelates with cardiovascular health.
3. Emphasizing Objectivity:
The formal tone required in legal and governmental writing can be achieved through nominalizations, as they focus on actions over individuals.
- Sentence with Useful Nominalization: The contract’s violation led to the agreement’s termination.
- Revised Sentence May Feel Accusatory: He violated the contract leading to the agreement being terminated.
4. Highlighting Actions Over Actors:
By shifting focus onto the action rather than the actor, nominalizations can deliver a unique perspective in a sentence.
- Sentence with Useful Nominalization: The invention of the telephone had a significant impact.
- Revised Sentence Shifts Focus from Telephone: When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone it had a significant impact.
Using Technology You Already Have to Find Nominalizations
Technology can ease the revision process. Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature helps you quickly identify some nominalizations so you can revise them, but it does not automatically replace them. You will need to do that manually.
Using Find and Replace with Suffixes in MS Word
The Match suffix feature is useful when searching for suffixes like -ion. Here’s how you can use it:
- Open the document in Microsoft Word.
- Press Ctrl + H to open the Find and Replace dialog box.
- Click on More to display additional options.
- Enable the Match suffixes box.
- In the Find what box, type the suffix you’re searching for
- To replace the text, select the text you want to remove and type in the new content.
- Click Find Next to locate the next instance of your search pattern.
You can also use this method to find other parts of words. Select Use wildcards instead of Match suffix, and type the pattern you’re looking for into the box. You will need to use codes for different types of unknown characters, which you can find on Microsoft’s website.
Using Professional Editing Technology to Transform Nominalizations
While tools like Microsoft Word can highlight passive voice and wordiness, they’re not specifically designed to correct nominalizations. For seasoned writers seeking advanced tools, WordRake stands out. This professional-grade software targets nominalizations to uncover hidden verbs buried within them and offers precise suggestions to transform sentences into masterpieces. Here are some examples of how WordRake can revive a sleepy sentence:
He had no knowledge that did not know that the company was in dire straits.
The company is formally letting it be known announcing that it is laying off people and slashing its payroll by forty percent.
They have given us no overall summary of their thoughts have not summarized their thoughts to us following the consultation process.
Bob hasn’t given to the team his demonstration of the product hasn’t demonstrated the product to the team.
They gave no indication to us regarding their opinions on the matter did not indicate their opinions on the matter to us.
He used more than half the meeting to speak, giving a recitation of reciting the company's accomplishments.
They haven't given any justification for haven’t justified their move.
They have given proper consideration to have considered the ideas.
But he will need preternatural skills to achieve a victory prevail against Mr. Hollande.
He provided them with guidance regarding guided them through something important.
The decision gave him some comfort comforted him.
He gave a suggestion that suggested Bob take a break.
They had to come to an agreement on agree on a budget that the Planning Board would approve.
No matter your writing goals or your deadline, WordRake delivers in-depth and efficient editing for professionals. It will quickly bring weak or winding writing to your attention and suggest ways to improve it—then you decide which edits best match your goals. WordRake’s thousands of editing algorithms make simple, direct writing intuitive. Streamline the editing process and get effortless access to clear, direct, and reader-friendly writing with WordRake.
In professional writing, you must choose the most effective way to convey information. Usually, you’ll want to eliminate nominalizations, but there will be times where these abstract nouns are the right choice. If you evaluate every nominalization critically, you’ll control your message and how it’s presented. To streamline the process, try WordRake. It will bring verbs back to life and invigorate your writing.
About the Authors
Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.
Kate Callahan is a Marketing Specialist for WordRake. Before her passion for learning and writing led her to join the team in 2023, she worked in non-traditional education, content creation, and translation. She started her career by teaching ESL to elementary school students in Japan. You can follow her on Twitter @KateC_Writing or connect on LinkedIn.