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