Writing Tip: Avoid Nominalization

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Here’s a good example of bad writing from the world of government:

 …a substantial measure of administrative flexibility to draft the price regulatory mechanism in a manner designed to optimize production from domestic properties subject to statutory parameter requiring the regulatory pattern to prevent prices from exceeding a maximum weighted average[1].

Say what? Here’s one from business:

 An accreditation analysis was conducted of the performance level of the administration of the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism[2].

Painful passages like these are surprisingly common among politicians and professionals. They are hard to read and even more difficult to understand.

One of the problems these passages illustrate is what some call nominalization. William Zinsser, in his excellent book, On Writing Well, calls it “creeping nounism.” It is the tendency to prefer nouns over verbs.  At its worst, nominalization results in stringing together multiple nouns into a bewildering chain of modifiers:

 the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism

 This would be much clearer by inserting some prepositions and verbs:

 the mechanism for disbursing compensation to senior executives

Isn’t that a little easier on the tongue (and the brain)?

For some reason, writers intent on writing in a “professional” or “academic” tone end up fixated on nouns. Instead of writing “I analyzed the data,” they write, “A data analysis was performed.” Instead of “Tommy explained,” they prefer, “Tommy gave an explanation.”

Beware nominalization. Verbs give life and movement to your writing. When given an option between a verb and a noun—take the verb.

verb

nominalization

argue

argument

describe

description

publish

publication

direct

direction

advise

advice

plagiarize

plagiarism

evaluate

evaluation

meditate

meditation

behave

behavior

reveal

revelation

distort

distortion

One reason nominalization makes for flat, bland writing is that it leaves out people. Nobody does anything in a sentence like: “Taxation is subject to the potentiality of intentional misrepresentation.” It’s both clearer and more interesting to say, “I am tempted to cheat on my taxes.” Good writing contains actions and actors.

To be sure you have not fallen into this bad habit, count the number of –tion words your writing contains. The bigger the number, the more likely your writing has succumbed to creeping nounism.

Nobody goes broke now; we have money problem areas. It no longer rains; we have precipitation activity or a thunderstorm probability situation. Please, let it rain.   –William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Of course, we like to do the opposite too and turn perfectly good nouns into verbs. I wrote about this idea of “verbification” in this post last September: Verbing Weirds Language. Thanks to Ben for the reminder!


1 quoted in The Writer’s Art by James J. Kilpatrick, P. 65.

2 from Michael Harvey’s website, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, <http://nutsandbolts.washcoll.edu /clarity.html>, Dec 16, 2004.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield11-07-2012

    Helpful information, Brian! Some of this was new to me.

  2. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko02-10-2012

    Great question, Ben. As a matter of fact, I addressed that issue already (including the Calvin and Hobbes quote) in this blog post from last September:

    http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2011/09/verbing-weirds-language/

    I will edit the article above to include this!

  3. Benjamin Jacob
    Benjamin Jacob02-10-2012

    On the flip side what about all the nouns that get turned into verbs? Words like friend and trend are nouns. However people can now “friend” me and yahoo tracks topics which are trending. As Calvin once told Hobs “verbing weirds language”.

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