Saturday, March 12, 2011

Turning verbs into nouns isn’t always bad for English prose

A big turnoff of typical office memos and letters as well as academic papers is the overwhelmingly high incidence of “-ion” words. You know, a simple verb like “assume” is converted to the noun “assumption,” “simplify” into “simplification,” and “authorize” into “authorization.” When used judiciously, these nominalized words, or nominalizations, indeed can reinforce the persuasiveness or authoritativeness of such forms of communication, as in this statement: “Your assumption oversimplifies the problem and needs to be reexamined very well.” Here, note that the noun “assumption,” a nominalized verb, functions as the doer of the action of the verb “oversimplifies” and the verb phrase “need to be examined.” But as we all know, the typical office or government bureaucrat would nominalize practically every verb in that sentence to produce what is known as bureaucratese, like this: “Your assumption is an oversimplification of the problem and requires a very thorough reexamination.” Predictably, such “-ion” words multiply like rabbits in the rest of the exposition, resulting in English so formidably dense that it’s sheer torture to read.

But as I explain in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, “Making nominalization work for our prose,” “-ion” words aren’t always bad for the health of English prose. There are at least five grammatical and semantic situations when using a nominalization—a verb turned into a noun—will be more advisable or prudent than using the verb itself. I have posted that essay here for those who would like to review or discover what those situations are. (March 12, 2011)   

Making nominalization work for our prose

Many of us are familiar with this conventional grammar wisdom: turning verbs into nouns—or what is termed “nominalization” in linguistics—is bad for the health of our prose. The evidence that this is so is, of course, painfully clear. Take this particularly turgid example of bureaucratic writing: “The conclusion of this interim faculty performance evaluation committee is that there has been an inadequate information dissemination effort with respect to the new instruction performance standards as mandated and enforced by the Department of Education effective January 1, 2004.”

The sentence above is obviously not only difficult to understand but also sounds obtusely and irritatingly authoritative. The unfortunate thing, however, is that many academics and bureaucrats think they are doing a great job by making such convoluted semantic constructions. Few of them ever realize that for every verb that they assiduously convert to a noun-form in their vaunted circulars and directives, they are erecting just one more formidable barrier to good communication with their constituencies.

Let’s check precisely what have been “nominalized” in the offending sentence above. The following verbs, we can readily see, were converted to nouns: “conclude” to “conclusion” and “disseminate” to “dissemination.” And this nominalization binge gave rise to two inevitable things: (1) a passive sentence in which nobody or nothing seems to be doing anything, and (2) long noun-strings whose constituent nouns already cross-modify themselves into near incomprehension even before the adjective can do its own modifying job, like “interim faculty performance evaluation committee,” “inadequate information dissemination effort,” and “new instruction performance standards.” The horrible “-ion” words simply multiplied like rabbits.

Is there a way out of this semantic rigmarole? A good way to begin is, of course, to restore the nominalizations into their active verb-forms and to clearly establish who or what the doers of the action are in the passive sentence. Try this one for size and clarity: “This interim committee has ascertained that the new standards for measuring the teaching performance of faculty members have not been properly disseminated. Faculty members have not clearly understood the new instruction standards put in force by the Department of Education last January 1, 2004.”

Having made this indictment this against nominalizations, however, we must not think that they have no value whatsoever in exposition. They can actually prove useful in at least five semantic situations. Here are those situations:

Nominalization to make abstract things more concrete and credible. As we have already seen above, this is actually what many academics and bureaucrats do to their prose—but to great excess. If done sparingly and with restraint, however, this form of nominalization can actually make abstract statements more convincing. Without nominalization: “The woman couldn’t believe that her son’s decision was a wise one.” More convincing with “wise” nominalized to “wisdom”: “The woman couldn’t believe the wisdom of her son’s decision.”

Nominalization as a transitional device. By serving as a subject referring to an idea in a previous sentence, a nominalization can provide smooth transition: “The election losers finally accepted defeat after a perfunctory protest filingThis acceptance paved the way for better governance in a country notorious for unceasing politics.” Here, the noun-form “this acceptance” in the second sentence nominalizes the verb-phrase “accepted defeat after...” of the first sentence, thus effortlessly leading the reader to the next idea.

Nominalization to attenuate extremely harsh or forceful statements. In making extremely sensitive statements, it is often prudent to use a nominalization instead of its more direct and vigorous verb form. Too pointed and insensitive: “The prison officials will electrocute the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.” A more prudent statement with “electrocute” nominalized: “The prison officials set the electrocution of the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.”

Nominalization to more clearly identify the object of its verb-form. For stronger emphasis, it is sometimes desirable to use a nominalization to clearly identify the object of the verb in a sentence. Without nominalization: “The job applicants are not aware of what are required by the newly created position.” Smoother and more concise by nominalizing the phrase “what are required by...”: “The job applicants are not aware of the requirements of the newly created position.”

Nominalization to replace awkward “the fact that....” phrases. When making a transition to the next sentence, the easy but lazy way is to use the phrase “the fact that...”: “The fact that she was able to convert a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.” Nominalization of that phrase results in a better sounding sentence and a more elegant transition: “Her conversion of a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.”

Knowing now that nominalizations aren’t all that bad for the health of our prose, let’s not hesitate to let them do their job when the semantic situation really calls for it.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 9, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently became part of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

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