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A Word, Please: Buried verbs, buried meanings

June 09, 2011|By June Casagrande

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.

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