Nominalization: Don't Overuse Abstract Nouns

A "nominalized" sentence is one in which abstract nouns perform most of the work. Instead of boring your readers with with a lot of abstract nouns (such as those formed by a verb root + "-tion"), revise your sentences in order to make your verbs do the work.

This paper gives an analysis of the 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.)
This paper analyzes the problem and solves it.
(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.

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.)
At the scene, Deputy Harris collected blood; downtown, Detective Jones hammered away at the suspect's story.
(Revision uses fewer words, but provides many more concrete details.)

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 abtract 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 objective, but 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



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