Nominalisation and zombification

Posted by on January 07, 2013

Nominalisation is a bulky term for when a word or phrase – typically a verb or adjective – is converted into a noun. It’s also known by the less formal word nouning. Nominalisation is itself a nominalisation, formed by adding the derivational suffix -ation to the verb nominalise. Other suffixes achieve similar ends: good → goodness, include → inclusion, total → totality, frequent → frequency, develop → development.

Sometimes nominalisation occurs without any changes to morphology, in which case it’s an example of zero derivation or conversion; nouns formed this way include turn, hope, result, and ask, as in “a big ask”. In a post about the history of verbing and nouning, Jonathan Marks described verbing as “an economical way of extending the functionality of the language without needing to create new words”, and the same may be said of conversion generally.

Nominalisation, with or without adding an affix, is very common in English, and is a prolific source of new vocabulary. Yet it has a bad reputation in writing circles. As well as the traditional grumbling about words being used in novel ways or created unnecessarily, there is also a popular belief that nominalisation leads to weak and wordy prose. In the New York Times last year, Helen Sword warned writers about what she calls zombie nouns that “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings”.

I agree with Sword’s point that nominalisation can (sometimes) make language vague and turgid. But Language Log’s Mark Liberman found her argument inconsistent and her advice less than coherent, while Josef Fruehwald felt it served to exploit writers’ insecurities.

Editing academic prose, I often make changes like the implementation of → implementing, or There is a requirement for us to → We must. You can imagine how doing this twenty times on a page makes life much easier for readers. Compare “A need exists for us to oversee a process of conducting an investigation into this” with “We have to investigate this”, and you will see what improvements are straightforwardly possible when we replace needless nominalisations with plainer constructions.

That nominalisations may be excessive or obstructive is trivially true. But sometimes, as Sword acknowledges, they “help us express complex ideas”. We needn’t scapegoat the grammatical process itself and turn it into a rhetorical bogeyman. Instead we can train ourselves to distinguish between nominalisations that convey meaning helpfully and effectively, and those that obscure it.

Comments (7)
  • Stan:
    I believe George Orwell called it “doublespeak” (I haven’t read the book in many years, so my memory may be off). As a newspaper reporter, and later, as an editor, I had to assume my readers ranged from functionally- illiterate, to holders of advanced degrees, and I did exactly what you do; I translated the material into easily-understlood English. Unfortunately, groups like to obfuscate; it keeps the groundlings in their place. On the positive side, it gives employment to editors.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 8th January, 2013
  • Lovely piece: anyone who says “change ‘There is a requirement to’ to ‘We must’” is a friend of mine!

    Posted by Adam Kilgarriff on 9th January, 2013
  • Marc: Obfuscation is sometimes strategic, as you point out. It can serve to give language a more formal appearance, but at the risk of intelligibility. I agree with your conclusion, too: it gives us editors something to do!

    Adam: Thank you! “There is a [needless nominalisation]…” is a very common construction in business and academic prose; some writers simply lose the habit of making the subject of their sentences obvious.

    Posted by Stan on 11th January, 2013
  • Obfuscation is indeed sometimes strategic and sometimes habitual, Stan. But nominalisation is a particular form of obfuscation, since the big thing it does is to airbrush out who is doing what to whom; ‘globalisation’, for example, just ‘is’ – no need to mention the agents (people, corprorations or states) or the activities (those agents doing things to, or possibly with, other people, corporations, states etc) that are actually going on. Much loved for this reason by politicians, nominalisations also litter organisational discourse, hiding actors, processes and relationships. It can be very liberating for people to learn to unpack nominalisations – suddenly they have to have conversations about what they really mean in terms of agency (who has power to act and who is acted upon) and relationship (what kind of relationship the organisation expects to have with customers, say, or patients, or regulators). I’m possibly straying a little off the topic of editing, but this is a great example of the powerful effect of the form of language (not just vocabulary, which is more visible) on social, political and economic life.

    Posted by Gill Ereaut on 16th January, 2013
  • ‘ It can be very liberating for people to learn to unpack nominalisations’
    Very true, Gill. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that nominalisation can help obscure agency and relationships, but it doesn’t necessarily do so, and including an agent isn’t always the solution. Take the phrases “Someone decided” and “Josie made the decision”. The first avoids nominalisation but doesn’t show who’s responsible; the second includes a nominalisation but makes clear who performed the action.

    Posted by Stan on 17th January, 2013
  • Of course you’re right and gloriously precise Stan, as always! Thanks. In bureacratic or organisational discourse, in our experience, the ‘someone decided’ form is rare since it too-easily invites the question ‘well who decided, then?’ , in a way that the form ‘the decision was made’ does not. If one can get the agent back in – ‘the Board made the decision’ – then it’s a short step to ‘the Board decided’. And there, that’s much better.

    Posted by Gill Ereaut on 22nd January, 2013
  • [...] postings at Macmillan Dictionary Blog since the year turned. I have three new posts up. The first, Nominalisation and zombification, looks at a grammatical process often cited as a hindrance to good [...]

    Posted by Zombie nouns, words of the year, and serendipity « Sentence first on 4th February, 2013
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