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).
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, …
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, …
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.
The Higgs boson was predicted in 1962, and this inspired a hunt by physicists which eventually led to the construction of the LHC.
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:
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!Email this Post