Those zombie, empty nouns that don’t stand for any real thing—how do they creep into our writing?
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Last week I talked about how much our writing is strengthened when we replace abstract subjects with concrete ones capable of actually performing actions, and then use those actions as our primary verbs.
Next week, we’ll look at some strategies for doing that. But first, let’s talk about what those abstract nouns are called, and how they arise. This will help us understand which ones are the worst offenders. Then we’ll know how to tell which ones to leave alone.
Page 1: The Dreadful Word Nominalization Stands for a Dreadful Thing.
Those abstract nouns that find their way into subject and object positions have a technical name among linguists: they’re called nominalizations. That is, they’re some word that’s normally not a noun, but been turned into one.
There are three parts of speech that get nominalized: adverbs, adjectives, verbs.
The nominalizations that wreak the worst havoc on writing are the verbs, so we’ll save them for last, and deal with the easy ones first.
Rarest and also least troublesome are adverbs. You’ve heard me use a nominalized adverb at least once if you’ve listened to all the episodes of Word Shots. In episode 6, I said that writers often get in trouble because they’ve “never clarified the why at all.” In that sentence, I’ve nominalized the adverb why. Most uses of a nominalized adverb are like this one; the writer is asking you to take a close look at that adverb either as a word or as a concept, and so it gets treated as a noun. If the writer’s dealing with it as a concept, there may be no way to make it less abstract than it is. But notice that I used it as object, not as subject. The subject is the writer, the one who must deal with the concept, who must look closely at the reasons behind his or her opus, “the why”. So the sentence still has the elements of story: an agent, the writer; and an action, in this case an action not taken, that of defining why he or she is writing.
If, in your reading, you give up on an author when you find such a usage, it’s probably because you disagree with their entire premise; you don’t believe that the adverb-as-subject is worth studying. Your reason for quitting is less likely to be that this way of using the adverb is unclear or distasteful to you.
Adjectives are nominalized more often than adverbs. They can be a little more troublesome, but not too much so. A nominalized adjective names a state or condition, and we’re actually quite used to thinking about those. For example, we often think about conditions such as happiness or sadness. These are nominalized forms of the adjectives happy and sad. The reason they’re not distressingly abstract is that we usually don’t think of them as separate from some actual being. Instead, we normally picture a happy or sad person, or perhaps an animal. And usually, the writer who uses one of these abstractions gives us some context that helps us choose the right thing to visualize.
Last week I used the sample sentence “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.” That’s an extreme case of the writer supplying plenty of context. Although the nominalized adjective sadness was in the subject position, the rest of the sentence invited the reader not only to picture it as belonging to a person, but to a very specific person. On the website, I included a picture of Woolf, who even when young and well-featured, gave the impression that she wasn’t fully out in the world where she was being depicted, but was inside herself hunting desperately for something she’d lost.
We humans have a long tradition of telling stories to illustrate how human traits and conditions work themselves out, how they have predictable, if not inevitable, consequences. We see this illustrated in the fables attributed to Aesop, in which an abstract moral statement is turned into a story, and vice-versa.
So, we’ve dealt with nominalized adverbs and adjectives They don’t present a very thorny problem, which is why Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, doesn’t deal with them at all in his otherwise excellent treatment of nominalizations.
Page 2: Nominalized Verbs Are the Worst.
But that leaves us with the nominalizations formed from verbs. These are the ones that most often make for dreadful prose, the ones that too often burden academic writing.
There are three ways to nominalize a verb in English: the first is by adding a suffix, the second is by making no change at all, but simply using the verb as if it were a noun, and the third is by leaving the spelling unchanged but altering the pronunciation.
Let’s look at examples.
1: Using a suffix:
Difficult becomes difficulty by adding y.
Discern becomes discernment by adding m-e-n-t.
Move and announce become movement and announcement in the same way.
Fail becomes failure by adding u-r-e.
Refuse becomes refusal by adding a-l (after dropping the silent e).
And nominalize becomes nominalization by dropping the silent e and adding -ation. This tion-form is all too common in academic writing, where we see far too much of:
and oh, the list is far too long.
The other two ways of nominalizing a verb I’ll cover very briefly.
2. There can be no change at all; I just used an example: change is a verb but I used it, unaltered, as a noun. The same is done with the verbs answer, reply, murder, hope, and return. Many of these verbs-turned-nouns are so frozen in our language that often we don’t notice them.
Compare “she didn’t reply” to “she made no reply”. A careful editor may prefer the first in many cases, but few readers will balk at the second and think “you used reply as a noun!” In most cases, this is because only the philologists and linguists among us even know whether it was the noun that came first or the verb.
3. Finally, there are those cases in which spelling is unchanged, but pronunciation is changed.
For example, use becomes use when it’s nominalized.
If you use your fork well, your host will appreciate your proper use of it.
In many cases, the change is only in accenting. This is common in two-syllable words whose second syllable is accented when the word is a verb, but in which the accent moves when the word is nominalized.
Increase becomes increase: When crop yields increase, there’s also an increase in happiness.
Insert becomes insert: Please insert the insert after page 40.
Import becomes import: When I import a car, the government wants me to pay a tax in the import.
In word-pairs like these, the normal pattern is that stress rises in the verb form (increase), and falls in the noun (increase).
And that covers how nominalizations are formed. Now…
Page 3: Your Turn: Are Some Nominalizations Worse Than Others?
Here’s where I want to turn things over to you. Help me puzzle out a few things about nominalizations.
One kind of verb nominalization I didn’t mention is the common gerund, the noun ending in -ing. I’m pretty sure it causes a lot less stumbling to readers than the words that end in -tion. Why might this be? What do you think?
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Once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any topic related to Word Shots, but my special question for this week is: Are gerunds less bothersome to read than -tion-formations, and why or why not?
Let me know what you think!