Wednesday 27 August 2008

On nominalisations

A correspont writes to say he is having trouble with nominalisations. He cites a style guide which advises its readers to shun them, turn them into verbs, and find an appropriate subject for the sentence. He comments: 'In my view, however, this is easier said than done. And to make matters worse, there seems to be instances where nominalisations are useful, particularly in academic writing.'

Nominalisation is the result of forming a noun from a word belonging to another word-class, e.g. writing from write. It's been a feature of English from its very beginning, in Anglo-Saxon times, so any general rule about 'shunning' nominalizations has to be absurd. What the style guides are usually getting at is the overuse of two processes: (a) long words formed with a suffix such as -ation - as in nominalisation, indeed, from nominalise; and (b) sentences where a noun phrase derives from a finite clause, as in the rejection of the proposal, instead of X rejected the proposal.

Nominalisations allow us the option of being more abstract and impersonal, which is why they are useful in academic writing. Note the problem in (b) above: we have to choose a subject for the clause, and it isn't obvious which subject to go for. Who actually rejected the proposal? And, in any case, is it relevant to know who rejected it? The important point is that it was rejected. The nominalisation allows this focus on the result without distraction.

The antipathy to abstract words is a feature of 20th-century style pundits. George Orwell inveighed against them (despite using them all over the place). So did Ernest Gowers. In a section (in Plain Words) called 'the lure of the abstract word' he comments that avoiding nominalisations 'is more important than any other single thing if you would convert a flabby style into a crisp one'. And certainly, the overuse of such forms can be turgid, as his examples show: 'The actualisation of the emotivation of the forces...', 'a mutuality of capability...', and so on.

But overuse is not the same as use. And no-one can avoid using nominalisations. A few lines before the above, Gowers himself writes about 'an excessive reliance on the noun at the expense of the verb', and there are dozens of nominalisations in his pages. The crucial word is 'excessive'. Excessive use of anything is always stylistically dangerous.

Style guides always simplify, often to the point of pastiche, and that is what has happened here. An originally sensible point - the need to avoid unnecessary abstraction, which often hides unclear thinking - has been generalised into an outright ban. I can't give a guide about when to use or not use nominalisations in a blog (as my correspondent also asks) - that would be a huge task. But I can draw attention to the gradience that exists between nouns and verbs - or, more precisely, between deverbal nouns via verbal nouns to participles - where it's fascinating to see the range of nuances of expression which English provides. It is one of the hidden gems in the big Quirk grammar (§17.54), and it goes like this, with glosses given underneath each sentence:

(1) some paintings of Brown's
(a) 'some paintings that Brown owns'
(b) 'some paintings painted by Brown'
(2) Brown's paintings of his daughter
(a) 'paintings depicting his daughter and painted by him'
(b) 'paintings depicting his daughter and painted by someone else but owned by him'
(3) The painting of Brown is as skilful as that of Gainsborough
(a) 'Brown's mode of painting'
(b) 'Brown's action of painting'
(4) Brown's deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch
'It is a delight to watch while Brown deftly paints his daughter'
(5) Brown's deftly painting his daughter is a delight to watch
= 3a or 4
(6) I dislike Brown's painting his daughter
'I dislike the fact that Brown does it'
'I dislike the way that Brown does it'
(7) I dislike Brown painting his daughter (when she ought to be at school)
= 6a
(8) I watched Brown painting his daughter
'I watched Brown as he painted his daughter'
'I watched the process of Brown painting his daughter'
(9) Brown deftly painting his daughter is a delight to watch
= 3b or 4
(10) Painting his daughter, Brown noticed that his hand was shaking
'While he was painting his daughter...'
(11) Brown painting his daughter that day, I decided to go for a walk
'Since Brown was painting ...'
(12) The man paintng the girl is Brown
'The man who is painting...'
(13) The silently painting man is Brown
'The man who is silently painting'
(14) Brown is painting his daughter

Style guides should be explaining to people what English allows us to say and write, and pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different usages in different contexts. Blanket bans are a nonsense.


Anonymous said...


I am a Turkish girl from Istanbul. Went to Italian school and took Italian, English and Latin.
But I grown up with French people too. So I learned French at private school.
Married to an Italian who speaks Friulano with his parents (which I do understand but cannot speak).
Plus, we have a house in Hamburg (Because of his job) So I have started to speak German!
Since 5 months I am in Paris (because of job). And I don't even remember in which language I have spoken with who. Seems so natural to understand all :(

I do not know even in which language I think... It is not good to understand everything :(
What can I do?? How my brain works? On objects? Or words?

(Ohh I have studied communication at the university)... No way, still ignorant, still no answer...

(There's a documentary on Italian tv, They are showing your speech)


DC said...

Not quite sure what this comment is doing on this post - but I don't know how to transfer it to the relevant one, which would (I imagine) be 'On being linguistically defeated', so it has to stay here! It's not an unusual situation, anyway. Indeed, it seems to be increasing, as people in Europe become more mobile. There's more semilingualism and mixed languages around than ever before. It's not something to be worried about, it seems to me. Languages are tools, and we should use them to do whatever job we need.

The Ridger, FCD said...

And of course "the rejection of the proposal", instead of "X rejected the proposal", allows for more complex sentences, since now we have a noun phrase which can be the subject of a sentence or subordinate clause, or the complement of a verb, preposition, or even another noun. (E.g., "Russia's rejection of the European proposal led to American anger ..." instead of "Russia rejected the European proposal and America got angry")

I sometimes wonder if these usage prescriptions are designed to produce things like:

Europe proposed a ceasefire. But Russia rejected it. So America got angry.

Because that's where they're going...

Philip Hall said...


Work on nominalisations have underpinned a lot of linguistic theories haven't they? Chomsky's for a start.

As far as style is concerned, my own take on that the use of nominalisations is justified by for cultural and historical reasons.

In essay writing, derived from the ancient art of rhetoric, we discuss - debate - what is true and what is not true.

The implication is that, if we are speaking of the truth and not "mere" opinion, we need to distance ourselves from the language. So it's a pragmatic choice. We choose to nominalise when we are making claims about the truth and we want to signal that we are engaged in a specific type of academic discourse.

Now academic discourse varies from culture to culture. In the East, for example, students add gravitas to their statements by saying "we". Well, this is logical in a culture where the metaphor for learning is the "receipt" of wisdom. In this kind of culture debate would imply the rejection of wisdom, I suppose.

In other cultures, individualistic styles of debate are rejected in favour of the negotiation of meaning inside a small community of learners which itself is nested in a broader community.

Our model is not superior, in fact it is slightly duplicitous as we hide formulated opinion behind a veneer of truth telling.

This style of objectivising rhetoric is particularly harmful as it tends to license scientism to do its worst.

So, in my view, using nominalisations makes a lot of sense, but mainly in the Anglo-American academic tradition. Not using nominalisations would be bad style in this context.

What ideas do you have on the differences in the use of nominalisations across cultures?

I think it would be comparatively easy to do a corpus study - perhaps simply by using Google.

DC said...

No ideas, I'm afraid. Never looked at it.

June Casagrande said...

In my experience, often the style guide is NOT overstating the case but the reader is just taking it too seriously. For example, a lot of writers think passives are "bad." But they base this on sources that don't state it in such absolute terms.

Nominalizations can, indeed, stink to high heaven (esp. when combined with passives and esp. in action-oriented fiction).

"The shooting of John was done by Bill" vs. "Bill shot John."

I suspect the problem lies with people's fear of grammar and how this can take on almost religious qualities. A sin is a sin -- there's no gray area. So when people hear, "Try to avoid nominalizations," they interpret it with some "thou shalt not" thrown in. Add that to many people's belief that any one style guide is preaching a universal "gospel," and you end up with a whole lotta fear and frustration.

DC said...

Indeed. The best guides are those which draw attention to the grey areas, like Pam Peters' Cambridge Guide. But even Fowler was conscious of grey areas, and often identified them.

Ron Denholm said...

Hi David,

I call them 'ghost verbs', since many were once living verbs, and they are a rich source of diversity in any writing. In my EssayAudit readability matrix, I suggest an average 1.5 syllables per word in any writing, meaning that strings of ghost verbs need to be managed, not exised. Here's an example:


Ron Denholm