don’t hide your actions under a bushel

Nominalization is a fantastic word. Like multisyllabic, it perfectly illustrates itself. It means “the noun form of a verb or adjective.” In this case, the verb is nominalize, which means “to make a noun from a verb or adjective.”

But nominalization is not always such a good practice. Nominizations can (not always; see below) weaken your writing by turning powerful energy-filled verbs into nouns, draining away the action from your sentence. Unfortunately, nominalizations are among the scourges of technical writing. I’m not sure why! Fortunately, once you start looking for them, they’re easy to find and (usually) easy to revise away.

In Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams (Canadian Edition by Joseph M. Williams and Ira Nadel) gives some helpful examples of how to find and excise nominalizations from your writing. The following examples are inspired by his work.

Nominalized verbs

In general, writing is more clear when the main action is in the form of a concrete verb rather than a noun.

Compare (VERBS are in all-caps; nominalizations in bold):

  • It PERFORMS a reboot of the system
  • It REBOOTS the system
  • We COME to the discovery that…
  • We DISCOVER that…
  • Please DO a review of the data
  • Please REVIEW the data
  • Customers may MAKE an objection if..
  • Customers may OBJECT if…

NOTE that the action and the verb COINCIDE in the more direct examples. Or, if you prefer (and would you really?): It IS notable that there IS a coincidence of action and verb in the more direct examples.

Nominalized adjectives

Likewise, try to use a concrete verb instead of an adjective. Actions hidden in adjectives usually appear after a form of the verb to be.

Compare:

  • The data ARE indicative of the general trend.
  • The data INDICATE the general trend.
  • Our product IS deserving of such an honour because….
  • Our product DESERVES such an honour because…
  • These examples ARE applicable to our situation.
  • These examples APPLY to our situation.

Exceptions

As with so many “rules” of writing, there are exceptions: sometimes a nominalization is better than the alternative. For example:

  • What we have argued previously…
  • These arguments ….
  • The fact that our service team acknowledges every call…
  • Our service team’s acknowledgement of every call…
  • We will respond to what you request.
  • We will respond to your request.
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