Nominalisation and communicative goals

Posted by on January 10, 2013

The word nominalisation is used at least in three different ways. It can mean:

1 a process of word formation in which a noun is formed from another word class by derivation or conversion;
2 a noun which is the product of such a process;
3 a pragmatic choice made by writers and speakers, in which they use a noun phrase “to express a meaning more typically associated with an item from another word class” (Cambridge Grammar of English).

It’s the third of these that Helen Sword, in the article that Stan alerts us to, is really grumbling about. So why do people do it?

Well, for two main reasons, probably:

1 It can be a way of expressing ideas economically. Look at this example from the Cambridge Grammar of English (it’s about capturing and marking animals for scientific research):
The time lag between marking and first recapture was higher than the lag between second and third recapture, …
(18 words)
and compare it with this invented alternative version, without the nominalisations marking and recapture:
The time lag between when we marked the animals and when we first recaptured them was higher than the lag between when we recaptured them for the second and third time, …
(31 words)

More specifically, it enables two clauses to be combined into one. Compare this sentence, which includes the nominalisation prediction:
The prediction of the Higgs boson in 1962 inspired a hunt by physicists which eventually led to the construction of the LHC.
(2 clauses)
with this:
The Higgs boson was predicted in 1962, and this inspired a hunt by physicists which eventually led to the construction of the LHC.
(3 clauses)

2 An English clause normally (although there are exceptions) needs a subject, and English has developed various ways of satisfying this formal requirement without actually specifiying who/what the subject is – ways of avoiding naming a subject whose identity is either unknown, or obvious without being named, or known but deliberately withheld. One of these ways (there are over a dozen others, by my reckoning) is nominalisation. For example:

The privatisation of the railways happened in the 1990s.
These factory closures are a huge blow to local economies.
The implementation of the project has been accompanied by a number of unforeseen problems.

In other words, nominalisation is an option that can be used in the service of at least two broad communicative goals:
1 economy;
2 depersonalisation, which may facilitate objectivity, denial of responsibility, avoidance of allocating blame, etc.

Sword complains that nominalisation “substitute[s] abstract entities for human beings” and criticises a particular sentence replete with nominalisation because it “fails to tell us who is doing what.” But there are times when we specifically want to substitute abstract entities, such as governments, for particular human beings, and not telling “who is doing what” is not necessarily a failure; it can, rather, be the result of a communicative intention or constraint.

No doubt the striving for the twin goals of economy and objectivity is the reason for the prevalence of nominalisation in academic prose. In the data reported in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, for example, the suffix -tion, which is overwhelmingly the most frequent derivational suffix used to form abstract nouns, is 22 times more frequent in academic prose than in conversation, and more than twice as frequent as in news.

What consequences an over-proliferation of nominalisation can have for readability is a different matter, though!

Comments (3)
  • You say under the first point that nominalisation “enables two clauses to be combined into one”.
    I agree that nominalisation often results in fewer clauses, but I don’t think that its purpose is to “enable two clauses to be combined into one”. Combining two clauses is not an end it itself, nor something that writers routinely want to do. Surely it is rather a question of information structure – given or shared information versus new information. The two ‘versions’ i)‘”The prediction of the Higgs boson in 1962” and ii)The Higgs boson was predicted in 1962” are very different.

    Version i) presents “the prediction of the Higgs boson in 1962″” as known information, shared between writer and reader. The noun ‘prediction’ encapsulates this information and then projects forward to the new point, which is that it “inspired a hunt”… etc. Version ii), on the other hand, presents the whole proposition as new; it informs the reader of the background, and thus requires a Subject-Verb structure of its own – the two main clauses are making two different points as opposed to one. Version i) happens to be shorter, but economy is a by-product of its different message. Surely this is not simply an open choice between a brief and a wordy version.

    Posted by gill francis on 13th January, 2013
  • Thanks, Gill. Good point.
    I don’t think version 1 necessarily presents the “discovery” as already known to the reader, but it certainly does topicalise it, and I agree that that’s the primary reason for it.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 16th January, 2013
  • [...] From @MacDictionary, a useful discussion of nominalizations and communicative goals. [...]

    Posted by Links: Autonomy and Doctoral Study | Explorations of Style on 30th January, 2013
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