The Sentence Sleuth: Nix Those Nominalizations

A CLIENT ONCE sent me this note: “Bonnie, you do not have to poof.” Yes, as a copy editor I’m a magician, tightening verbose verbiage and coaxing sense out of vagueness. But I’ve never poofed. I have, however, proofed, and I was apparently being excused from this task, at least this one time.

Usually, though, my copy-editing customers give me a better workout than Mr. Poof. The reason? Flabby nominalizations. They force me to spend my days climbing over rough sentences and wading through murky text. It can be tiring. Now, I’m not complaining about all this extra work. Without my dear clients, I’d have to while away the time checking for typos on my shampoo bottle or trying to copy-edit my comforter’s “DO NOT REMOVE” tag.

Nevertheless, I often wish my writer pals would slim down their sentences. If only a quick “Poof!” would do the trick. Alas, it takes detective work and exercise to neutralize nominalizations.

So, what’s a “nominalization”? That big, fat word means “uh oh” for your sentence. Nominalizations are passive, and passive sentences allow you to be vague. Being vague is unfair to your readers. Your audience wants to be informed about something, not spend time deciphering who’s doing what. Nominalizations also lead to wordy, soporific sentences that contain too many weak “to be” verbs. I therefore nominate nominalizations for the Naughtiest Writing Habit Award.

Let’s pretend you’re a home inspector, and you’ve just spent two hours crawling around the attic. You’ve worked hard to find all the home’s faults, but you don’t want the home buyers to work hard when they read your report. Home buyers want straightforward sentences that relate what’s wrong with the house—not self-important sentences like this:

The recommendation of this inspector is that the removal of all birds’ nests should be done to avoid the plugging up of the roof’s valleys.

I bet your concentration faltered when you got to the birds’ nests. Mine certainly did (mmm, donuts). Sentences filled with nominalizations make you look fat and unattractive to your readers. This particular sentence contains three nominalizations: “the recommendation of,” “the removal of” and “the plugging up of.” “Recommendation,” “removal” and “plugging (up)” are nouns derived from the verbs “to recommend,” “to remove” and “to plug up,” respectively. (You can also turn an adjective into a nominalization—such as “embarrassment,” from “embarrassed.”)

Home inspectors detect problems in homes; you need to detect—and correct—nominalizations in your prose. Try this clearer, shorter sentence:

The homeowner should remove all birds’ nests that could plug up the roof’s valleys.

Nominalizations creep into everything: fiction, nonfiction, reports, marketing copy—maybe even comforter tags. They’re not grammatically incorrect, just poor style most of the time. So let’s un-nominalize. If you’re an editing novice, put red pen to paper; if you’re experienced, edit yourself on the computer. Be a writing detective. Look for clues. Many nominalizations end in “-tion” and “-ing.” Circle the obvious ones. About 90 percent of sentences with nominalizations contain an “of,” so circle every “of.” (If you’re on the computer, search for “-tion,” “-ing” and “of.”)

Now examine your collection of criminals. Not everything you circled will be a nominalization, though, so ignore the innocent bystanders. For each circle that does contain a nominalization, write down the appropriate verb or adjective. Here’s an example:

The coaxing of the cat down the tree met with success with the placing of some tuna on the fire chief’s head.

Circle the two cases of “of,” along with “coaxing” (from “to coax”), “success” (from “successful”) and “placing” (from “to place”). Then rewrite:

The firefighter successfully coaxed the cat down the tree by placing some tuna on the fire chief’s head.

This sentence is shorter, and it specifies who coaxed the kitty and who should buy the boss some shampoo.

Despite “the overall badness of” nominalizations, they can be effective. A mystery novel might include this sentence: “The instruction was to off the finicky copy editor with strychnine.”

Here, the writer is intentionally omitting the murderer’s identity. It’s also acceptable to use a nominalization if the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant: “The unsolved slaying of the copy editor shocked her grammar groupies.”

If you do know who did what, however, be active, specific and concise. You’re aiming for a slim profile, so avoid bloated sentences full of nominalizations. If readers want something fatty, they’ll grab a donut.

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