It's worse than we feared.
We at Ragan.com warned you about "vampire words" that suck the life out of your copy.
Now it turns out that other forms of undead abound in writing. We're talking about nominalizations: verbs or adjectives that have been transmogrified into
nouns, to ugly effect.
In a frightening echo of our own warning, writer Helen Sword states that these words "cannibalize active
verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives, and substitute abstract entities for human beings."
Sword stated this last summer in The New York Times and a terrifying video, and this spring the
Newspaper of Record twice revisited the topic, lamenting "Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns."
In the latter piece, author Henry Hitchings cites these examples:
"Do you have a solve for this problem?"
"Let's all focus on the build"
"That's the take-away from today's seminar"
and, quoting from a British hit,
"Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?"
(Then again, I'd rather not.)
Sword shows how to conduct a de-zombification—er, to clean up—a sentence:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.
Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
OK in small doses
Hitchings says that "nominalizations aren't intrinsically either good or bad. Yet, used profusely, they strip the humanity out of what we write and say."
He notes two types of nominalization:
A. Those that add a suffix, so that the verb investigate becomes investigation (and nominalize yields nominalization).
B. "Zero derivation," in which a word is switched from verb or an adjective into noun without the addition of a suffix, such as the examples above.
When future bards someday sing of the heroes who defended beleaguered mortals against the zombies, they will remember Dr. Annetta L. Cheek, board chair of
the Center for Plain Language.
I reached her by phone in her car, and, after swerving to run over a flesh-eating noun, she warned that nominalizations are a common problem in
"We can't just 'analyze data,' we 'conduct an analysis of data,'" Cheek said. "We can't just 'manage' something, we 'assist in the management of.'"
Verbs are the strongest part of speech in English, Cheek said. "To the extent that you take your verbs and turn them into nouns, you're making your writing
weaker," she added.
Tapping other braaaaaaaiiiiiiiinnnnnssss…
Still worried about the shadowy un-nouns lurking on our streets after dark, we sought out the word warriors at Grammarly.com. Head of Communications Allison VanNest asserts that "nominalizations tend to make writing more difficult
to understand. However, it is not wrong to include nominalizations in your writing if they help to make it more concise or reinforce your main idea."
VanNest cites Brian Wasco of The Write at Home Blog, who
"One reason nominalization makes for flat, bland writing is that it leaves out people. Nobody does anything in a sentence like: 'Taxation is subject to the
potentiality of intentional misrepresentation.' It's both clearer and more interesting to say, 'I am tempted to cheat on my taxes.' Good writing contains
actions and actors."
Ragan.com Executive Editor Rob Reinalda is known as the Word Czar and regularly banishes employees to Yakutsk,
Siberia, for style and grammatical goofs. Reinalda also carries a sawed-off shotgun on his commute to deal with zombie nouns.
"A major problem is that people today write blog posts, 'professional' emails, and other official missives with the same casual tone as they do their
Facebook updates," Reinalda wrote. "Striving for the conversational has resulted in the reckless slapping together of words without regard for parts of
speech or even proper usage."
A troubling trend
A piece in About.com praises the flexibility of the English language in constructing nouns
from other speech parts. Yet it cites a quote that suggests that something bigger is going on.
"At the present moment, everybody seems to be going a bit nuts with noun creation," Ben Yagoda, author of "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It," is quoted
as stating. "Journalists and bloggers seem to believe that a sign of being ironic and hip is to coin nouns with such suffixes as -fest (Google 'baconfest'
and behold what you find), -athon, -head (Deadhead, Parrothead, gearhead), -oid, -orama, and -palooza."
Then again, writing "at the present moment," would surely get Yagoda in big trouble with the Word Czar, as would dropping the timorous "seem[s]" twice into
two subsequent sentences.
Let us allow a final word to Sword, whose very name fills us with optimism that the forces of good will slay their evil enemies:
A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are
concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie-free.
RELATED: Irritated writer says turning verbs into nouns in a 'slovenly' practice
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.