Nominalizations.

To keep up with my wife, who’s an adventurer extraordinaire, I had to start working out with a trainer. Shameless plug here, I go to Optimal Performance, a private gym in east Wichita. What you should know about my wife is that she’s an endurance and outdoor athlete. On our first date, I asked her to tell me two interesting things about herself. She said (a) she ran a 100-mile race across the sand dunes of Namibia [these are the sand dunes on your Apple screen saver] and (b) her favorite book was War and Peace. At the end the date, I asked her to dinner the following night, which was New Year’s Eve. When you know, you know.

As I mentioned in other posts, I spent the prior six years working full-time while earning two masters degrees. Let me put that another way, if I wasn’t at my desk (or for a few years, teaching), I was in class or at the library. I cannot tell you how many times I chose a library cubicle with a window so I could watch life rolled by. When I graduated, I resolved to spend more time outside. Then, fate strikes, and I meet my wife. The rest is history.

Back to my trainer—the guy is a stud. And he’s driven not only as a personal trainer but as a business owner. He gets together with a group of guys from across the country, led by a mentor, to refine their business practices. His mentor—a word we get from the Greek Mentes, who was Odysseus’s trusted counselor and who Athena assumed the form of to help him retake Ithaca in “Death in the Great Hall”, the penultimate chapter of the Odyssey—challenged each person in their group to write a chapter for his book. So my trainer and I have spent a lot of time talking about writing recently.

Today we talked about verb forms and nominalizations. Nominalizations are nouns that are created from adjectives (word that describe nouns) or verbs (action words). For example, “interference” is a nominalization of “interfere”, “decision” is a nominalization of “decide”, and “argument” is a nominalization or argue. (I borrowed this definition from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, or OWL.)

As OWL explains, nouns and verbs are the basic units of sentence structure.

Subject —> verb

Character—>action

Person or thing—>doing something

Writing today is cluttered by nominalizations. Much of it, I think, comes from the false premise that big words sound smart and therefore make the writer look, or at least seem, smart. Try reading an academic paper about a literary work. They’re erudite, difficult to understand essays. In the same vein, corporate writers have slipped these words into press releases and other public-facing materials to add an air of sophistication (another word that comes from the Greek sophist, or, as Plato suggested, superficial manipulators of rhetoric and dialect).

How do you tamp down nominalized language into clear, concise writing? First, find the verb. Verbs do work; they are the action in your sentence. Second, find the noun; the noun does the action of the verb. If you discover the verb is “is”, then look for nominalizations.

Optimization of our work force is a key goal to our company.

versus . . .

Our company wants to optimize our work force.

Which do you prefer? I like the second option. It reads clearly and concisely.

Regardless of nominalizations, your very best bet when refining your writing is to locate the verb (nominalized: . . . is to find the location of the verb—do you see how making “locate” the verb instead of the noun adds punch?). From your verb, you find the noun. Then, arrange the sentence as you see fit.

As Orwell said, however, make sure your writing isn’t barbaric. Sometimes nominalizations are exactly the right course of action. But more often than not, choosing to make the verb the verb is your smart bet.

Parker McConachieComment