In the last two posts on “Effective Writing,” I’ve covered a number of common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. This week I’d like to discuss another affected writing style: nominalizations.
Nominalizations are nouns formed from other parts of speech, and they tend to make your writing “clunky” or “chewy.” Think about your own writing: do you find yourself using unnecessarily complex words to sound more “literary”? For example, is your writing “an amplification of a concept,” or does it amplify your idea? (See the difference?) Writing is more clear and direct when it relies on strong verbs to do the work.
Of course style enters into the equation, and nominalizations tend to be more accepted in academic writing than in other genres, but be careful not to overdo your use of nominalized phrases in your own writing. Here are some examples:
There was considerable erosion of the beaches due to the hurricane.
Our discussion concerned a tax increase.
I am getting through my loss, and there is a beautiful life that still awaits me.
Here are more succinct ways to say the same things:
The hurricane caused considerable beach erosion.
We discussed a tax increase.
I am adjusting to my loss, and a beautiful life is waiting.
In “The Opinionator” blog, Helen Sword writes about what she calls “zombie nouns”:
“Academics love [nominalizations]; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:
“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
“The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what.
“When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:
“Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
“Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.
“A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured, and blissfully zombie-free.”
You can easily fix these awkward sentences by asking yourself, “What is happening in the sentence?” In the example above, the writer is the subject—and notice that writer is absent from the awkward version.
As The Grammar Gang writes, “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.”
For more on common writing errors, check out my older blog posts–you’ll find lots of great info that will help you with self-editing!
Do you have any awkward writing pet peeves? I welcome your comments and examples—I’d love to use some in my next blog, so don’t be shy, please comment away! Or you can e-mail me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I promise to respect your privacy.