A Word, Please: Bury verbs at your peril

Grammar jargon can be pretty off-putting. Try dropping a term like dangling participle or object predicative at your next office party and you’ll see what I mean. That’s why I avoid the stuffy-sounding terms whenever possible.

But the truth is I kind of like them — and not just for their power to clear a room. I like them because they represent language concepts that, though seemingly just silly bits of arcana, are actually very practical.

One of my favorite terms is nominalization. The 50% of you who kept reading after that last sentence might find it helpful to know that, if I had my way, I’d change the name to nounification.

Grammar book author Bryan Garner calls nominalizations buried verbs — another term that’s designed to capture the concept in words people actually use instead of words that put them to sleep.

Here’s a passage illustrating why this concept is worth learning: “The delaying of the closing of the stores until 10 p.m., which was a decision of the CEO, enables the staff to have greater productivity and the company to have greater profitability.”

That stinks, right? Of course it does. That’s easy to see. But it’s not as easy to fix. That’s where jargon like “nominalization” — or at least the concept behind the jargon — becomes invaluable.

A nominalization — or buried verb, or nounification if you want to use a word only you and I recognize — is a noun rooted in another part of speech, usually a verb or an adjective.

The adjective “happy” has the corresponding noun form “happiness.” The verb “delay” has the corresponding noun forms “delay” and “delaying.” The verb “change” has the corresponding noun form “change.” For example, in “I changed my hairstyle,” change is a verb, but in “I made a change to my hairstyle,” it’s a noun.

So you can see that some nominalizations are formed by adding a suffix like “ness” or “ing.” Other times they’re identical with their verb forms. What makes them nouns is how they’re used in the sentence.

Of course, not every word derived from a verb that ends in “ing” is a nominalization. Again, it depends how it’s used in a sentence. In “I am painting my house,” the -ing form is functioning as a verb, so it’s not a nominalization.

In “I took a painting class,” the -ing form is functioning as an adjective. But in “Painting is fun,” it’s working as a noun: Painting is actually the subject of the true verb “is.” So this is a nominalization. In fact, this particular kind of nominalization has its own name. It’s called a gerund, which means any “-ing” form of a verb doing the job of a noun.

Nominalizations are serious problems for some writers. If you accept the principle that the best writing uses vivid subjects and lively verbs (as most professional writers and editors do), you can see how nominalizations can hurt your writing.

“The eating of pizza was done by Joe” is a downright horrible way to say “Joe ate the pizza.” “When the walking of the dog was finished, Betty commenced the eating of the breakfast” is an awful alternative to, “When she finished walking the dog, Betty ate breakfast.”

OK, those are extreme examples. But less silly ones are very common and often sap vividness out of writing.

Compare “He made changes to his itinerary” with “He changed his itinerary.” The first is wordier. But, worse than that, it takes an action and makes it into a thing. Actions are most interesting when they’re actions.

And that, in a nutshell, is why good writing avoids nominalizations whenever possible.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the 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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