Pack More Punch in Your Writing: Choose Verbs over Verb Phrases and Nominalization

A woman looks bored, falling asleep on an open book.

If your job requires you to write regularly, consider your readers and today’s changing exposure to words when drafting your work. With every day’s onslaught of content from emails, text messages, social media, and meetings—both on and offline—modern office workers don’t have the time or patience to read unnecessary words to get to your point. Wordy writing is a great way to get someone to close an email or dump a proposal without finding out what it’s about.

One of the prime ways to add unnecessary bulk to your writing is nominalization: making verbs and adjectives into nouns. But if nominalization is so bad for readability, how did it become so prevalent in our writing? And why do we tend to use these wordy verb + noun expressions more when we’re trying to sound formal?

Understanding Nominalization and Verb Phrases

Nominalization, or "nouning," is making a noun from of a verb. In many cases, English speakers add noun suffixes (-ment, -tion) to verbs to turn them into nouns.

Common Examples of Verbs Being Nominalized:

Verb

Noun Form

analyze

analysis

react

reaction

write

writing

adjust

adjustment

Why English Has Nominalization

We know these are cases of nominalization (and not nouns becoming verbs, for example) because of the morphology (pieces) of the words: the verbs usually have no suffixes to begin with. We also know about the history of these words. English nouns that come from verbs are usually Latin in origin. When English borrowed these Latin verbs and their noun forms (mostly through French), the speakers and writers borrowing them copied the Latin grammar, too. English words of Germanic origin, by contrast, often look the same whether they are nouns or verbs (we may only change the stressed syllable of the word). Some examples of English words that look the same whether they're nouns or verbs are hit, laugh, and ache. Note that this word history is not a perfect correlation: many Romance verbs in English can look the same as a noun or a verb (like record, permit, and insult). However, if an English noun has a suffix that is not -ing, it's probably a nominalized form of what was once a Latin verb.

A Quick Linguistics and History Lesson

Unlike English, Latin is an agglutinative language. That means Latin gives a lot of information in long words (with lots of morphemes: grammatical pieces). English, meanwhile, is a more analytic language, which means that it gives more information using shorter individual words and a specific word order. Note that very few languages are purely agglutinative, analytic, or isolating (another category), but linguists describe languages as mostly one type or another based on factors like morpheme-per-word ratio.

The later Romance languages—French, Spanish, Italian, etc.—are less agglutinative than their parent, Latin, but French, for example, is more agglutinative than English was when these words and structures came into English usage. Note that analytic and isolating languages are typically more verb-centric and usually have more verbs than agglutinative languages. The extra verbs give details that agglutinative languages give through prefixes, suffixes, and adverbs. For example, an analytic language is more likely to have two separate verbs, like run and sprint, while an agglutinative language is more likely to explain the different concepts as run and run quickly, or to move the verb to the beginning of the sentence to show that its meaning is more intense.

Like all human languages, English started out with no consistent writing system. English speakers in different regions started using the Latin alphabet, but spelled things in different ways. When English speakers tried to formalize and standardize written English, these speakers-turned-writers looked to Latin, Greek, and French for ideas. Because English is a different type of language (more analytic), however, these writers abandoned some native English grammatical tendencies (sentences with many short words in which the verb is the most important) to match those Latin, Greek, and French styles more closely (fewer and longer words in sentences in which the noun is most important).

It was at this time that writers began to include Latin- and French-style constructions like provide us with information about instead of tell us. In some cases, the Elizabethan-era writers trying to give English more credibility literally translated long Latin words with lots of parts into the many English words that gave the same information.

Why Should We Use Less Nominalization, Then?

With all this mixed history, English has a lot of parallel vocabulary and equivalent sentence structures. The contexts in which these words and structures entered the language still influence English speakers (and readers!) today. Because Latin and French words and grammar came into English through churches, universities, hospitals, and government, modern-day native English speakers still interpret these words and constructions as more abstract and distant (for use in more formal contexts). Meanwhile, because of English's analytic nature, modern-day native English speakers still associate Old English words and constructions as clearer and more direct (and sometimes more informal). A sophisticated writer, therefore, needs to know how to wield English diction and syntax, choose the right level of formality for the audience, and, if necessary, be formal without losing meaning.

How Can WordRake Help?

With a click of the Rake button, WordRake can reduce hundreds of long nominalized expressions to single verbs.

Reducing Wordy Nominalizations to a Single Verb:

In Brevity mode, WordRake finds long-winded nominalizations and suggests succinct, one-word alternatives.

Please provide details of explain how the Applicant may finish the application.

The physicians carried out an assessment of assessed ear health and hearing as part of the study.

Sulla had been in private negotiation with privately negotiated with Mithridates to end the war.

The MIDI protocol enabled computers, synthesizers, sound cards, samplers, and drum machines to interact with each other and achieve the full synchronization of fully synchronize the sounds used.

The Class A Units to be received by the Investor will be acquired for the investment for the Investor’s own account, not with a view to the resale or distribution of to resell or distribute any part thereof.

The auditors confirmed that the medical care being provided was in alignment with aligned with hospital standards.

During a full revaluation, an appraiser will do a thorough inspection of thoroughly inspect each property.

They are operating under the assumption that assuming that the CEO will retire this year.

Photos give people the opportunity to capture allow people to capture a cherished part of childhood.

Scientists have come to the conclusion that all chemical actions are have concluded all chemical actions are electrical.

The wars almost caused the destruction of destroyed the kingdom.

Only music professionals can reliably tell the difference between distinguish between a 160kbps variable bit rate MP3 and the raw CD audio, much less 192kbps.

No evidence suggested that something large, such as a piece of pipe or a rock, caused the obstruction of obstructed the sewer line.

The Oversight Committee failed to conduct sufficient inspections of sufficiently inspect the products.

Anthropologists have struggled to determine a definition of define marriage in a way that captures the social construct across all cultures.

The intention of the legislators was The legislators intended to reduce drunk driving.

The witnesses gave a description of described the bank robber.

The Planning Board gave some consideration to considered the Appellant's request for an easement.

An Alt Gr key on the alternative keyboard layout typically takes the place of replaces the right-hand Alt key.

Using More Straightforward Verbs

WordRake also helps writers choose verbs that readers understand more clearly. Particularly with Simplicity mode activated, many formal Latin verbs (including those flagged as "unusual or obscure" by PlainLanguage.gov) become more concrete and accessible synonyms that still fit the context.

The conversation assisted in the development of helped to develop a new Assessment Template.

Six disbursements were not in conformance with did not agree with the allowed spending purpose of the fee.

Weekly virus screening has been used to indicate has shown the need for specific testing and treatment.

On a nationwide tour, Zuckerberg expressed that Facebook said Facebook doesn't want fake news on the platform.

Making Both Types of Edits

As the history lesson above showed, English becomes less comprehensible when writers choose both Latin vocabulary (more formal and abstract) and Latin grammar (extra words, unnecessary nominalization). WordRake often provides these edits separately for clients who would like to maintain more formal vocabulary while reducing word count and clarifying wordy sentences. That's why a second Rake will often produce both edits, one step at a time.

Example One

First Rake:

Once your child is no longer a dependent, you must give notification to notify your employer in writing within 60 days.

Second Rake:

Once your child is no longer a dependent, you must notify your tell your employer in writing within 60 days.

Example Two

First Rake:

They gave him a demonstration of demonstrated their proposal for the new building.

Second Rake:

They demonstrated showed their proposal for the new building.

These Latin-based words and structures have long been a part of English, and they can often be useful. When they're not, WordRake gets your writing back on track. Removing unnecessary nominalization makes writing clearer, reduces word count, and keeps the focus on the content that matters. Try WordRake for free for 7 days and see what these edits can do for you.

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.

Our Story

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WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.