What the Heck are Nominalizations?
As a society, we’ve gone a little nominalization-crazy. We tend to take the easy route and add -ize, -fest, -mania, and other creative endings to seemingly every word in an effort to make nouns out of things that normally are not.
In this blog, we’re going to fix that.
What Are Nominalizations?
Nominalization occurs when you take a word that is not a noun, usually a verb or adjective, and you make it a noun. There are a few different ways that you can nominalize words.
Derivational nominalization (don’t worry, you don’t need to remember that) occurs when you add a suffix to a word to make it a noun. We looked at the most common example of this nominalization on Monday in our Quick Fix on gerunds. If you haven’t read that yet, it’s a great foundation for understanding nominalization.
But gerunds aren’t the only way to noun a verb or adjective. Here are some examples of nominalized verbs and adjectives, and the word that they came from.
Gave great difficulty -> Difficult
The difference was -> Different
Their selfishness -> Selfish
Its intensity -> Intense
My dizziness -> Dizzy
Made an announcement -> Announced
Contained a variance -> Varied
Showed gratitude -> Grateful
Gave their resignation -> Resigned
It is a nominalization -> Nominalize
Zero-derivation (again, no need to remember) occurs when you change a verb or adjective into a noun without adding anything to the word. It most commonly happens with verbs, but some adjectives go through zero-derivation, too.
Here are some examples of these nominalized words.
I’m not one of the poor. -> I’m not one of the poor people.
The rich get richer. -> The rich people get richer.
Don’t go near the sick. -> Don’t go near the sick animals.
I want to have a look. -> I want to look.
The use of horses is waning. -> Fewer people use horses.
Can I share my answer to the question? -> Can I answer the question?
I want to go for a run. -> I want to run.
Are Nominalizations Bad?
There is nothing wrong with nominalizing verbs and adjectives every now and then. The fact that nominalization is itself a nominalized word sort of hints at that.
If you open up a book, read an article, or talk to a friend, you will find that nominalized words appear every now and then. And that is okay.
The downside to nominalizing words is that it can lead to sentences that are difficult to read, it can take the energy out of you work, and it can remove context that might be important to readers. Henry Hitchings said, in a 2013 New York Times article,
"Nominalizations give priority to actions rather than to the people responsible for them. Sometimes this is apt, perhaps because we don’t know who is responsible or because responsibility isn’t relevant. But often they conceal power relationships and reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction. As such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business. They emphasize products and results, rather than the processes by which products and results are achieved.”
Clearly there are uses for nominalization, and we will cover those next. Just be careful in your use of nominalizations. Learning to identify them and acknowledging their effects on your writing is a great first step in using them properly.
When Should You Use Nominalizations?
As Hitchings stated, there are some instances when nominalizing words is okay. If you want the sentence to put emphasis on the action, rather than the subject, then nominalizing is effective. Just remember that you don’t want too many sentences where the subject isn’t the one acting.
Politicians, marketers, and public relations professionals will also find use for nominalizations. While I will not go as far as saying it is an instrument of manipulation, nominalizing words is a great way to lessen the blame on the subject. And, as Hitchings wrote, it is an excellent way to emphasize products and results.
Finally, academic writers and students are encouraged to use nominalization. Unlike most writing, their work usually combines the passive voice with nominalizations. This has grown to be the accepted style in academia, primarily because it removes the academic from the paper and focuses on results and evidence instead.
How to Spot Nominalizations
Nominalized verbs and adjectives can be incredibly tricky to spot, especially since they only impact your writing when used over and over again. There are a few ways to find nominalizations in your work, though.
Following a verb. The best way to find nominalized words is by looking for the verb in your sentence. Take a look at the examples of nominalized verbs up top; all of the verbs are followed by the nominalized word.
Following ‘there is’ or a conjugation of is (was, were, etc.). Take some of our adjective derivations; you could easily use those adjectives with ‘there is’. For example, There is a difference between right and wrong.
Look for empty verbs. An empty verb is one that relies on another word in a sentence to give it meaning. We will look at these more in a future Quick Fix, but consider the word discuss. Discuss needs more context so you know what is being reduced or by how much. Now look at this example:
Our discussion concerned the renovations.
The verb discuss has been nominalized, so we can change the sentence to:
We discussed the renovations.
Consecutive and linked nominalizations. This is when nominalizing words can really hurt your writing. If you have one nominalization, it can easily change the flow of your work and lead to more. Keep an eye out for multiple nominalizations in a row or near each other.
Remember, Nominalizations Aren’t Awful
When you understand how and why we nominalize words, you can start using nominalizations more effectively in your own work. Don’t think that every single nominalization needs to be removed, because that’s just inaccurate.
But sometimes nominalizations need to be reworded, either for clarity or to make your work more concise. Sometimes you might have to nominalize some words to make your writing more impactful. Hopefully, after reading this blog, you will be able to master nominalizations.
If you want more practice though, or a handy reference sheet to print off, we have you covered. Click here to get our FREE nominalization worksheet and printable reference, as well as all the other great resources we have made and continue to make.
And leave a comment down below if you learned something about nominalizations, or if you have any questions still. And if there is a topic you really want to see, let us know in the comments, too.