“When ideas fail, words come in very handy.”- Goethe
Nominalizations. What are they? A nominalization is when a word, typically a verb or adjective, is made into a noun.
Why do we need them? Because it is often useful to identify what a thing is rather than what it is doing or what it is describing. You will write with more fluency if you are aware of both the root forms of nominalized words and how to nominalize familiar and unfamiliar words. Since it’s English, there are plenty of exceptions, but there are many common suffixes that will help you to recognize nominalizations.
Suffixes like: -tion (operation), -sion (comprehension) -ty (flexibility), -ness (happiness), -ment (commitment), -ance (governance), and -ence (conference), -ism (capitalism), -ury (usury).
Here are some words with common suffixes:
From prohibit–> we get prohibition,
from systematize–>we get systematization,
And from nominalize–> we get nominalization.
From difficult–>we get difficulty,
From facile–>we get facility (as in with facility or ease),
And from hopeless–>we get hopelessness.
Here are some less common suffixes:
from refuse–>we get refusal
from renew–> we get renewal
Note that the suffix -al may not always constitute a nominalization. It can also be used to convert a noun into an adjective, as in autumnal.
from fail–>we get failure
from censor–>we get censure
from expose–>we get exposure
Note that just like the -al suffix, the suffix alone will not be sufficient to determine whether it is the verb form of the noun or vice versa, so always consult a dictionary if you’re unsure. Perjure, for example, has a -ure suffix, but it is the verb form; perjury is the noun form.
Why should we avoid them?
When we write in academic spaces, we are often tempted to effect an elevated or formal diction, and nominalizations are one way to do this. However, it is not advisable in most cases. Using nominalizations makes the writing passive rather than active, and tends to disrupt typical sentence structure (subject–verb–object), which is most comprehensible to us.
Of the following two sentences, the latter is clearer because the subject is foremost in the sentence and active.
Original: The experience of children with respect to being at school for the first time is common.
Revised: Many children experience worries when they go to school for the first time.
While we are interested in “the experience of children,” making experience rather than children the subject makes the sentence needlessly abstract. The former sentence makes experience the predicate rather than the subject.
Note: the example using “experience” is known as a zero-change nominalization, where the form of the word is the same for both the noun and the verb. Another example is “murder” which can refer both the act (to murder) or the thing itself (a murder).
Here’s another example:
Original: The companies reached an agreement to build in the neighborhood.
Revised: The companies agreed to build in the neighborhood.
Losing the nominalization makes the revised sentence less wordy. The subject-predicate position is not affected in this case, but why use a verb phrase with a nominalization when a verb will do. Do we know more by understanding that the reached an agreement rather than simply agreed? Not really.
This aversion to nominalizations is a somewhat recent backlash in academic culture, so more conservative fields, like science and law have been slow to adopt this change, but if we are thinking about how to write with clarity, this is practically axiomatic. However, feel free to defer to the stylistic preferences of your professors.
So never use them?
Of course not. Just don’t use them without reason. You will need to refer to things and concepts as things and concepts. But if your are nominalizing what should be your verb or adjective for the sake of reaching a word count, or sounding like a smarty-pants, know that your professor can probably tell.
There are other cases in which nominalizations are perfectly acceptable. Writers often take advantage of nominalizations to link sentences together, in which a nominalized verb (often preceded by a pronoun like this or that) refers back to known information. This kind of coordination with the referent is often necessary in writing. Take the following example:
The grammar of the written language differs greatly from that of spoken language. This difference is attributable to the constant innovations of spoken language (Kolln, Gray 126).
If you are further interested in other kinds of nominalizations like agent and recipient nouns, and gerunds, consult this site.
Kolln, Martha, and Loretta S. Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. , 2017. Print.