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A Word, Please: Bury verbs at your peril

October 20, 2012|By June Casagrande

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.

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