Saturday, April 4, 2009

Style Tips: Avoiding Over-Nominalization

Hello grammophiles. With only four weeks left until final exams, the semester is coming to a close at Purdue. Many of my recent sessions with clients at the Writing Lab have touched on strategies for improving sentence structure. Sometimes, even if all of your sentences are grammatically correct, they can still read a little "clunky." It is as if the writer goes through a series of wordy gymnastics and still doesn't get his or her point across.

An overuse of nominalizations is one major cause of "clunkiness." Nominalizations are nouns that have been created from adjectives or verbs; some examples include,

-- influence, evaluation, understanding, clarity, or [my current favorite] receptivity

Though these words carry do much of the same work as verbs or adjectives, they must be handled as nouns. In practice, this often means that your sentences will feature many more prepositions, helping verbs, and passive constructions, all of which tend to slow down your sentences and confuse your readers. Here are two over-nominalized sentences:

--An evaluation was undertaken as an investigation of the process by which sentences are formed. (3 nominalizations: evaluation, investigation, and process)

--The impression left by the judge was stern in his call for strengthening the regulation and arbitration of workplace disputes. (5 nominalizations)

Revision Strategies
Fixing nominalizations can be a difficult process, especially when it seems like there is no other way to say what you mean. The best advice is to turn your nominalizations into verbs. Instead of saying, "an evaluation was undertaken," say "we evaluated." Instead of saying, "the impression left by the judge," why not write, "the judge sternly announced." If you are having trouble with this, you may want to ask yourself this question:

-- What is the main action of the sentence? What really happens?

If the answer to this question cannot be found in the verb of your sentence but rather in one of its nouns, then you have some work to do. My friend and OWL Coordinator Allen Brizee often refers to the Paramedic Method, which was first developed by Richard Lanham. This method directly addresses issues relating to nominalizations as well as inexpressive verbs (such as "be" -- see my last post). For more on the Paramedic Method, here is a link to the OWL:

As always, good luck to all, and keep the interesting comments coming!

Brady Spangenberg


Anonymous said...

Can, please, someone site the binded authority for all them rules? Never elected to any office was William Strunk Jr. And the constitution didn't never codify the rules of alimentary school grammatical textbooks.

Language, usage and style evolute. Deal wid it.

Brady Spangenberg said...

You are right that English has no "binded authority," which is one of its advantages, but the lack of a centralized authority can also be a curse. This is especially true for people who have difficulty expressing themselves in English, such as non-native speakers. Native speakers can rely on their internal censor to judge what sounds good, but non-native speakers cannot. So when they wonder whether something is "right" or "acceptable," where should they turn for an answer?

We at the Grammar Blog are trying to provide strategies that will help people write clearer, more understandable sentences. Yes, language evolves, but sometimes keeping with this evolution can run you into a bit of trouble. If your audience cannot understand what you are saying, the chances are pretty good that you are not going to get what you want (whether it's an immigration visa, high marks in a class, a legal suit, or a university scholarship).


Ted Hofmann said...

It's a bit of a simplification to say that nominalization is always poor style, especially in academic writing. Michael Halliday & J.R Martin wrote fairly extensively on the evolution of scientific writing in "Writing Science: Literacy & Discursive Power" and pointed out that the heavy use of nominalized verbs in scientific writing developed to help scientists discuss actions and processes directly as the subjects of their sentences. Nominalization is abused by students seeking to inflate word counts and politicians trying to give their writing false objectivity, but in academic writing it serves a useful purpose as long as it is not abused. Academic writing is not popular writing or creative writing and it has its own generic norms (Genre as proposed John Swales).
There is a tendency, especially in English literature, to see literacy as one united absolute concept. That is not the case (see James Gee, Brian Street, or Ann Johns on Academic Literacies theory). Different discourse communities have different forms of literacy and different genre standards. You should not try to apply creative writing standards to academic writing without moderation.

Brady Spangenberg said...

Dear Ted,

I appreciate your comments, and I do agree that nominalization has its uses in academic writing. I would ask you one question though: what is the difference between the "abuse" that you cite and the "overuse" I discuss in the post? I am not advocating for students to avoid nominalized forms at all costs. This technique is one of many to reduce "abuses" of nominalization, particularly among writers who have not yet developed a complex scientific vocabulary. I have to disagree with you that nominalization is only abused by students and politicians. Here I would cite Joseph Williams and the Little Red Schoolhouse Project. Williams worked directly with representatives from the sciences in an effort to develop interdisciplinary guidelines for clear and concise writing. One of his main recommendations was to avoid overusing/abusing nominalized forms.

Best Regards,

Alan Davidson said...

"Anonymous said...
Can, please, someone site the binded authority for all them rules? Never elected to any office was William Strunk Jr. And the constitution didn't never codify the rules of alimentary school grammatical textbooks.

Language, usage and style evolute. Deal wid it."

Dear Anonymous,

Hey, hep cat, you got a real groove on with all that jive down the 'don't those daddios feel my pulse?'

How would you like a book written in the above? This was the lingo of teenagers in the late 50's. I could have written in the language of the characters in 'Clockwork Orange'; black people living in 'Sarf' London; or the natives of the Scottish Highlands. None of which you would have easily understood (if at all).

Language does change, but it's about the listener, not the speaker: we have to stop being so egotistical. If 'Deal wid it' does hang on long enough (probably won't since most terms never get beyond a small section of the population)then it will find its way to acceptance. Otherwise, it will fall by the wayside.

Most strong variants of English are created by the users (at least to some degree); this gives them a sense of identity and excludes the 'outgroups' (usually parents!)They are therefore doomed to ultimate failure, since we all need to be able to understand each other. Battles have taken place because of poor use of language, people have died. We need to try to communicate as clearly as we can.

But what do I know, I canna got not fi, I strictly roots.