Thursday, February 17, 2011

Avoid Nominalizations

My series of writing workshops for engineering students ended this afternoon. If the enthusiastic writers who attended remember just one tidbit of information from our time together (other than how much fun we had, of course), I hope it is this: avoid nominalizations. Because it is such a great tidbit, I'm proselytizing to you too, gentle reader(s).

Avoid nominalizations.

Perhaps additional repetition will help you remember to avoid nominalizations.

I didn't learn the word nominalizations until 2004, some six years after I finished my doctoral dissertation, so it's not as though a person can't get through written life without avoiding them. (Another helpful writing tidbit is avoid double negatives; see the previous sentence if you need proof. But on an egregiousness scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is least egregious and 10 is most egregious, double negatives hover around 0.5, while excessive nominalizations score a hefty 11.6.)

A nominalization is an action that resides in a word other than a verb. Nominalization, for example, is a nominalization (a noun-ification) of the verb to nominalize (to noun-ify). Most (but not all) -tion and -sion words are nominalizations. Remediation, infatuation, solicitation, elucidation, radiation, multiplication--these are all actions that could be expressed as verbs (remediate, infatuate, solicit, elucidate, radiate, multiply) but are instead nouns. (Words like nation and sedition are a little trickier. They were perhaps verbs at one point, before settling into permanent English noundom. At the root of nation is the past participle of nāscī, "to be born"; and sedition comes from seditio, which combines the prefix se- [apart] with the verb ire [to go]. But I digress.) Many nominalizations skip happily past -tion/-sion suffixes altogether: the influence, the score, the report, the get the idea.

In English, we like our actions in verbs. We like verbs so much that when they are delayed by intervening words, we get antsy. That's why languages like German can throw native English speakers for a loop:
German lets you postpone verbs for miles and miles. (For remarkable examples, see Mark Twain's essay, The Awful German Language.)

So we English speakers like actions in verbs, and we like our verbs up front. When an excessive number of actions appear in nouns, we get confused, annoyed, or both. Consider:

The cause of the impartment of obfuscation on meaning is the unnecessary placement of actions in nouns.

(Translation: We obscure meaning when we
unnecessarily place actions in nouns.)

Hey, I hear all of you out there in internet space, saying to yourselves, "sure, the understanding of the cause of challenges from the putting of actions into nouns is important, but what about the influence of the ordering of words on the meaning of a sentence?" To which I would simply reply, "verbs and cohesion walk hand in hand. Put your actions into verbs, and you shall not regret it."


melissa said...

Well implored! What do you call it when someone verbifies a nouns? As in "that project doesn't cash flow".

mom2homer said...

Melissa, oh dear, "cash flow" is a doozy. Would you believe the process is actually called "verbification"? ("Verbification" is a nominalization; let's say "to verbify.") See (if it's on Wikipedia, it must be true!). I believe it's possible to verbify any noun. How's that for throwing down the gaunlet (an act we could call gauntletting, which sounds delightfully like a German seperable verb, as in "She let down the gaunt")?

Bernadette said...

Oh my. I love this stuff! Well done! Do more!

I hate it to when I hear someone say 'We want to grow the business'. I am hearing this lately on the news.

While I can grow tomatoes, I can't grow my son since that task belongs to him. Why should I be allowed to 'grow' my business? Seems to me I might want to do the things that help the business grow.

Am I off base on this one?

Bernadette said...

You are in good company here. This is from a piece on NPR

Many of the justices admit to linguistic pet peeves. Kennedy hates adverbs and disdains nouns that are converted to verbs — "incentivize," for example. Scalia readily admits to being a snoot.

"Snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used, not dulling it by misuse," said Scalia, adding, "I'm a snoot."