Tuesday, April 16, 2013

NYT on Nominalizations

The Draft blog at NYT explores some writers' tendency to convert verbs to nouns and concludes that, perhaps, the practice has been unduly villified.  While I disagree in part, the piece explains a concept that invariably confounds some 1Ls:

“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.


It is easy to decry nominalization. I don’t feel that a writer is doing me any favors when he expresses himself thus: “The successful implementation of the scheme was a validation of the exertions involved in its conception.” There are crisper ways to say this. And yes, while we’re about it, I don’t actually care for “Do you have a solve?”

Still, it is simplistic to have a blanket policy of avoiding and condemning nominalizations. Even when critics couch their antipathy in a language of clinical reasonableness, they are expressing an aesthetic judgment.

Aesthetics will always play a part in the decisions we make about how to express ourselves — and in our assessment of other people’s expression — but sometimes we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.



| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference NYT on Nominalizations:


But the point of reducing nominalizations is to write with strong verbs. The verb in "Do you have a solve?" is "do have." The reason the sentence is grating is that the writer is using "solve" as a noun. The fix would be more like "Have you solved . . . ."

Posted by: Susan | Apr 18, 2013 1:46:59 PM

No good legal writing teacher gives a bunch of rules that must be followed under all circumstances. Instead, they teach their students the problems with, for example, nominalizations and explain the circumstances in which they are appropriate.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Apr 26, 2013 5:14:38 AM

Post a comment