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7 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • ‘ 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.

  • 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.