A Word, Please: Buried verbs, buried meanings

This week I have the thought to take on the writing of a column about people’s using of the things called nominalizations. Translation: I think I’ll write about nominalizations.

I got the idea when I came across a sentence like the following in an article I was editing: “The judging of the entries will be conducted by industry experts, many of whom have also accepted invitations to give talks and presentations at the event.”

Yup, people write like that. Which is fine, if you want to put your reader to sleep. But unless you’re a member of Congress or a financial-reports writer for AIG, chances are you actually want your reader to understand what you’re saying. In that case, it’s a good idea to know a thing or two about nominalizations.

Sometimes called “buried verbs,” nominalizations occur when you express a verb or an adjective as a noun.

“I had the thought” takes the action of thinking and makes it a thing. “To take on the writing of a column” turns the action of writing into an object. In both cases, lively actions are replaced with actionless or abstract verbs like “having” and “taking on.”

This is the opposite of what most successful writers do. Pros opt, whenever possible, to build their sentences on verbs representing real actions.

Some nominalizations are based on adjectives. Compare “she is pretty” to “she has prettiness.” Compare “the kind man” to “the man with kindness.” In both cases, the adjective is recast as a noun. And in both cases, you end up with the kind of sentence rarely penned by top writers.

Nominalizations often end in “ing,” as in “the running of the bulls.” They also often end in “tion” — as in invitation, presentation, which are noun forms of the verbs invite and present.

Why are nominalizations a problem? Well, they’re not, necessarily. Sometimes “I have a thought” captures your meaning better than “I think.” Words like “prettiness” and “kindness” can be useful. But nominalizations become a problem when they inadvertently turn otherwise interesting actions and descriptions into abstract, uninteresting things. Plus, nominalizations usually go hand-in-hand with lame verbs and the nominalized forms are often stiff and promote wordiness.

Look at “The judging of the entries will be conducted by industry experts.” Here the writer has made judging a noun instead of a verb. That, in turn, created the need for a verb — a need that was filled by the bland and abstract “conducted.”

The writer was then left with a sentence whose structure could only work in the form of a passive, “to be conducted by.” It’s the antithesis of lively, interesting writing.

To root out bad nominalizations in your own writing, look for sentences like “he gave a speech,” “we did the calculations,” “she had a realization” and “they experienced diversification.” Then consider making the nominalized forms into verbs: He spoke. We calculated. She realized. They diversified.

If you see a nominalization without a clear subject, as in “the judging will be conducted,” just ask yourself who or what is performing the action. That fast, you may have the basis for a better sentence: a clear subject and a substantive verb, as in “Industry experts will judge the entries.”

Not all bad nominalizations are as easy to fix. In “Experts accepted invitations to give talks and presentations,” invitations, talks and presentations are all noun forms of things that could be expressed as actions. But we don’t know who invited the experts, and it’s hard to make “invitation” a verb if you don’t know who your subject is.

Still, if you’re aware of the danger of bad nominalizations, your writing will definitely benefit.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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