What are useless nominalizations? How to avoid them?

The clarity in writing is followed by the definition of nominalization. Three principles of useless nominalizations in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.
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what are useless nominalizations how to avoid them

Language is dynamic and deliver a plain meaning to the target audience in countless ways. Some ways of expressing ideas might be perceived as "clearer" and "more understandable" than others from the reader's perspective. Therefore, writers must opt for writing styles that project clarityrather than confusion. An important factor affecting clarityin proses is the use of nominalization. This article discusses clarity in writing, followed by the definition of nominalization, and then three principles of useless nominalizations proposed by Williams, J (1995) in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. 

What is Clarity in writing?

Clarity can be understood as effectively communicating the idea in prose to the intended audience by appropriate word choice, well-structured sentences and sensible organization (Nordquist 2019). Clarity is also a means for a writer to achieve his aim of getting his intended message to the right audience. Clarity is important because readers are more likely to give up reading prose if it requires them too much effort to understand. Without clarity in writing styles, the writers struggle to convey their message to intended readers regardless of how brilliant the content is. F.L. Lucas (1995), in his book "Style"suggested a way to achieve clarity, which is to think of writing as serving people rather than impressing them. 

E.g. (1) After several dates, we don't talk anymore. 

     (2) After several dates, John and I no longer engage in verbal communication.

→ (1) and (2) mean the same, but the writing style in (1) communicates the idea more effectively and clearly. Meanwhile, (2) contains unnecessary advanced vocabulary to deliver the simple meaning "talk", making it challenging for beginner users of English to understand. 

An important factor affecting clarity is Nominalisationwhich is discussed in the next part of this article. 


What is nominalisation?

Nominalisation is the act of turning adjectives or verbs into nouns. For example, 'decision' is a nominalization of the verb 'decide', and 'attractiveness' is a nominalization of the adjective 'attractive'.

Three principles of "useless nominalization" in Style toward Clarity and Grace

1st principle: 

When the nominalization follows a verb with little specific meaning, change the nominalization to a verb that can replace the empty verb

In his book "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace", Williams (1995) suggested that nominalization be avoided when following a verb. The reason is that a verbfollowed by a nominalization would form a wordy phrase. Therefore, writers should use an active verb rather than nominalization to make the sentence more concise. 

E.g. Tom has made a decision to take a gap year

The sentence above can be made concise by replacing the useless nominalization 'make a decisionwith the decisive use of the active verb 'decide'

→ Suggestion: "Tom has decidedto take a gap year."

Exercises to practice principle #1: Change the useless nominalization into the main verb

1. The scientists conducted research on new cures for Covid-19.


2. Students have a discussion on how to achieve high scores in the IELTS test.


3. Most students have a desire to win the school contest.


Answer key

1. The scientists researchednew cures for Covid-19.

2. Students discussedhow to achieve high scores in the IELTS test.

3. Most students desireto win the school contest.

2nd principle:

When the nominalization follows there is or there are, change the nominalization to a verb and find a subject

When "there" is used as a sentence subject, it is called dummy subjectsA problem with dummy subjects is that it weakens the argument since the "real" subject of the action is left out. Similarly, when nominalization is used after there is or there are, the writer omits the definite subject, making the sentence vague and unclear. Therefore, unless the writers intend to conceal the agent of the action, Williams (1995) suggested that they should change the nominalization to a verb and find the definite subject of the sentence. 

E.g. There is a need for further investigation into the burglar case.

In the example above, the agent of the action is unclear due to the use of nominalization 'aneed'. To make the sentence clearer, rewrite it with a clearagentwho further investigates the case. 

→ Suggestion: "The police must further investigate the burglar case."

Exercises to practice principle #2: Find a subject and change the nominalization to a verb

1. There isa decision made by the school that requires students to take part in extracurricular activities


2. There was an argumentamong the studentsover the result of a football match.


Answer key

1. The school decides to require students to take part in extracurricular activities.

2. The students argued over the result of a football match. 

3rd principle: 

When the nominalization is the subject of an empty verb, change the nominalization to a verb and find a new subject

Take a look at the following example:

(1)  The experience of the students about the customer service at the amusement park on their trip to Vung Tau was terrible. 

(2)The students had a terrible experience with the customer service at the amusement park on their trip to Vung Tau. 

The sentence structure subject - verb - objectis the most typical in English, and sentences following this order are easily understood (Purdue Owl, n.d). Therefore, the sentence (2) is clearer because the subjectof an action is foremost and followed by an active verb. Meanwhile, in (1), long strings of nominalizations and other forms make it more difficult for readers to follow. 

Exercises to practice principle #3: Replace the nominalization with a new subject

1. The intention of the club is to promote a sense of solidarity among its members.


2. The discussion of the meeting among the students was about how to raise 

people's awareness of environmental protection.


Answer key

1. The club intended to promote a sense of solidarity to its members.

2. The students discussed how to raise people's awareness of environmental protection in the meeting. 


Nominalisationis one significant factor determining the clarity of prose. Nomilaisation is a helpful grammar concept, but writers should be aware of useless nominalizations to improve their writing and communicate the intended meaning to the target audience better. In this article, the author has illustrated the definition of clarity in writing, nominalization and three cases of useless nominalization to avoid based on the book Style: Toward Clarity and Style.

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