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.Email this Post