Minimize, Don’t Nominalize: Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part 3

nominalizations

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.

Think about your own writing: do you find yourself using unnecessarily complex words to sound more “literary”? #amediting #editing #editingtip Click To Tweet

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 cyjohnson5580@gmail.com, and I promise to respect your privacy.

Happy Writing!

Candace

http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/gram_nominalization.html

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns/

http://thegrammargang.blogspot.com/2009/04/style-tips-avoiding-over-nominalization.html

http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/action-verbs-good-nominalizations-bad/

http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/grammar-and-syntax/nominalization/

 

Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part II

awkward sentences

Welcome back to this series that highlights some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. This week I’ll tackle another affected writing style: those dreaded awkward sentences.

There are countless ways to construct awkward sentences, but let’s begin by focusing on three. A sentence can slip into awkward territory when:

  • It is wordy.
  • It is repetitive.
  • It contains a dangling modifier.
There are countless ways to construct awkward sentences, but let's begin by focusing on three. #editingtip #amediting #editing Click To Tweet

It is wordy: Too many unnecessary words and phrases do not add to the content or the meaning of the sentence, and phrases like in order to, due to the fact that, have the ability to, until such time as merely add to the problem. Try this one:

  • In my opinion, due of the fact that a situation of discrimination continues in the field of medicine, women have not at the present time achieved       equality with men, and in order to do so, they need to be increased in number.

How many other snoozers can this writer squeeze into one sentence?

Too many unnecessary phrases slow down your reader’s understanding (to say nothing of trying his or her patience). The solution? Try rewriting the sentence concisely:

  • Because of continuing discrimination in medicine, women have not yet achieved equality with men.

I challenge you to take your latest blog post, novel chapter, or magazine article and see if you can identify just one sentence that will improve if you delete a few of those unnecessary words.

It is repetitive: Saying the same thing two or three ways usually bores your reader. In The Bedford Handbook, Diana Hacker writes, “Writers often repeat themselves unnecessarily. Afraid, perhaps, that they won’t be heard the first time, they insist that a teacup is small in size or yellow in color; that married people should cooperate together; that a fact is not just a fact but a true fact. Such redundancies may seem at first to add emphasis. In reality they do just the opposite, for they divide the reader’s attention.

Here’s my example:

  • In this day and age, modern scientists are developing a new type of super-computer that will benefit mankind in innovative and important ways, both now and in the future.

Sadly, that sentence reads like something from a high-school science paper. You’re a professional writer! You can do better!

  • Modern scientists are developing a new super-computer that will benefit mankind in the future.

It Contains a Dangling Modifier: These are among my favorites when I’m editing because I usually get a good laugh as I imagine the scene. Join me in imagining this one:

  • Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Can’t you just envision that poor little written excuse running ran late for practice?

Neither can your reader.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about a concept.

When you begin a sentence with a clause, be sure it actually modifies the subject:

  • Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse,

or even better:

  •  The team captain, who arrived late for practice, needed a written excuse.

Another common problem with dangling modifiers is the supposition that the reader understands who is performing the action. For example:

  •  Without knowing his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

Who didn’t know his name? This sentence says that “it” didn’t know his name. To revise, decide who was trying to introduce him. The revision might look something like this:

  • Because Maria did not know his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

The phrase is now a complete introductory clause; it does not modify any other part of the sentence, so is not considered “dangling.”

Readers: 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 cyjohnson5580@gmail.com, and I promise to respect your privacy.

Happy Writing!

Candace

Next week: Part III: Nominalizations

Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part I

Image courtesy of 89studio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week’s blog, “Being a Being Who Has a Pet Grammar Peeve,” was the first of a series highlighting some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. As promised, this week I’ll begin to tackle affected writing styles.

There are many different types of mistakes writers make when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. Many beginning writers (and sadly, many established ones as well) think using “big” words is better, but most editors will advise you to eschew ostentatious erudition. 😉

Description is important. So is clarity. As Dean Reick wrote on Copyblogger, “To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.”

Writers can make many mistakes when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. #amediting #writingtips #words #writetip Click To Tweet

I recently edited a manuscript with the sentence, “To facilitate this change, I suggested that [Mary] commence the exercises I had recommended.” While there is nothing technically wrong with that sentence, why fill your work with words plucked from a thesaurus if you don’t need to? Consider this alternative, which is much simpler: “I suggested that Mary begin the exercises I’d recommended to help her with the change.”

The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a great online style handout that includes a list of common stock phrases and their one-word replacements. For example: is able to, is in a position to, has the opportunity to, has the capacity for, has the ability to . . . are all ways to say “can.”

Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that you forgo every use of phrases that add some variety or nuance; that is a style choice.

What I am suggesting is that you take a moment to consider how you could rephrase a sentence to be grammatically correct while expressing your point as clearly and succinctly as possible. Strive to express your ideas in the most direct, elegant, and persuasive way possible. I love my thesaurus, too, but I make sure I understand the nuance of the word I’ve plucked from it before I choose it over the word I want to replace.

Here’s another example from the UNC handout:

For example, if your paper discusses the significance of memory represented by the scent of wisteria in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, you are going to write the words “memory” and “wisteria” a lot. Don’t start saying “recollection,” “reminiscence,” “summoning up of past events,” and “climbing woody vine” just to get a little variation in there. A thesaurus might even lead you to say that the significance of nostalgia is represented by the odiferous output of parasitic flowering vegetation. . . . Remember that your goal in . . . writing is not to sound intelligent, but to get your intelligent point across.

Ready for more? Read “Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part II” here.

I’d love your comments about this or other grammar goofs. I hope you’ll share them here or write to me at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com. Thanks for stopping by.

—Candace

 

Next week: Passive Writing

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