Sunday, April 7, 2013


Over the past few days, Henry Hitchings has written two articles on nominalizations in the New York Times.  (here, here)  Because I find his explanation of nominalizations to be a little confusing, I want to give you my explanation of nominalizations and how to avoid them.

A problem that frequently appears in writing by novices is a tendency to use nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and clauses to do the work of verbs.  Consider the following examples.


Bob drove quickly down the road.

Bob sped down the road.

The diplomats worked at normalization of relations between the countries.

The diplomats tried to normalize relations between the countries.

In the second version of the first pair of sentences, a specific verb replaces the adverb and non-specific verb of the first version. Not only does the second version eliminate one word, it sounds more direct and powerful. In the second pair of sentences, the first version lets the noun perform the action; action is the function of a verb. Transforming verbs into nouns (or other parts of speech) is called nominalization.  Nominalizations sound formal and stuffy, and a writer should avoid them in most instances.

Can you spot the nominalization in the following sentence?

The company's business was the importation of fine china.

Importation is the nominalization.  Importation is a noun.  The sentence would work much better if you changed the nominalization into its active verb form.

The company imported fine china.

This sentence is shorter and more direct and it gives the action to the verb, where it belongs.

How about this example?

The letter came as a shock to Linda.

The letter shocked Linda.

The second version, which fixes the nominalization in the first, sounds more natural than the first.

For more exercises on nominalizations, go here, pp. 5-10.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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Here's my hopefully-somewhat-entertaining essay on the same topic:

Posted by: Rick Bales | Apr 8, 2013 5:32:00 AM

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