Nominalization: Don’t Overuse Abstract Nouns

JerzWriting > Grammar and Syntax >

A “nominalized” sentence is one in which abstract nouns perform most of the work. Abstract nouns are things you can’t touch or easily visualize (such as “analysis” or “solution”). These vague nouns contain within them a hidden verb (“analyze” or “solve”); the process of turning a word from a verb into a noun is called “nominalization.” Don’t nominalize. People tend to think writing is more clear and direct when it relies on verbs rather than abstract nouns formed from verbs. Revise your sentences in order to make your verbs do the work.

Bad Example This paper gives an analysis of the water problem and offers a solution.
(The abstract nouns “analysis” and “solution” convey most of the meaning in this sentence, while the verbs “gives” and “offers” are practically meaningless.)
Good Example This paper analyzes and solves the water problem.
(The second sentence is shorter and more direct.)

Nominalized sentences may be grammatically and factually correct, but vague. Most humans learn best when they can form specific, vivid mental images — and verbs are more vivid than nouns.

Iffy Example The collection of samples was taking place at the crime scene, and an interrogation of the suspect was about to happen at police headquarters.
(The sentence above is not wrong, but it could be much more informative and powerful.)
Good Example At the scene, Deputy Harris collected blood; downtown, Detective Jones hammered at the suspect’s story.
(The revision uses fewer words, but provides many more concrete details.)

Compare the wordy and vague nominalized phrase with the more succinct revision.

Nominalized Phrase Succinct Revision
gave a report reported
made a decision decided
offered a suggestion suggested
issued an announcement announced
served as a catalyst catalyzed
resulted in an increase increased
led to the destruction of destroyed

Technical and scientific writers sometimes fall in love with abstract nouns because they feel that abstract writing is more objective.  In truth, no communication between human beings can ever be completely objective; all writing is written to persuade on some level (for example, “I performed the experiment correctly, now please give me a good grade”), and even the most objective scientific writing is meaningless unless someone else can read and understand it.  It makes little sense, therefore, to pursue objectivity at the expense of readability.

If you do use abstract nouns in your writing, make sure that some other part of your sentence is doing significant work.

This paper gives an analysis of the problem and offers a solution.
(A boring sentence, accomplishing little other than taking up space.)
  • Even a precursory analysis reveals several promising solutions, the least expensive of which is X.
  • A thorough analysis failed to solve the problem fully, but X is the most practical short-term strategy.
(Each of these revisions place the abstract nouns into contexts that provides them with specific meaning; as you can see, the context could significantly change the meaning of the original sentence.  The original is not actually objective and factual — it’s just obscure.)

When you want to convey subtle shades of meaning, find the perfect verb. Long strings of modifiers (“quickly”, “hastily”, “incredible”) are inefficient.

Nominalized Phrase Succinct Revision
conducted a careful examination of scrutinized
caused considerable confusion for baffled
resulted in significant delay of paralyzed
caused a drop in the morale of demoralized

Dennis G. Jerz
28 Mar 2000 — first posted
15 Apr 2011 — minor updates