Problems with Too Many Nominalizations


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As a professional, you'll revise both your own and others' work. How do you tell if a document contains too many nominalizations?

First of all, knowing when you have used too many nominalizations can be difficult, at least at first: Most of us think our own writing says what we want it to. That's why people read their own work aloud –you're likely to hear all those prepositions and -ing words. That's also why professionals always have multiple readers review their work before it's considered finished – somebody else can more easily point out where readers are likely to think that your work is "wordy," "turgid," "complex," or "abstract."

When you read and revise your own and others' work, you can use the following guidelines to determine if a document contains too many nominalizations:
 
Diagnose Draw a line under the first six or seven words of each sentence. You may have a problem if

1. You have not underlined a subject that names a character;

2. You have not underlined a verb that names a specific action;

3. You have underlined a nominalization, unless that nominalization is a term of art that you want to be a main character or refers back to the verb of the previous sentence.

Circle all nominalizations and prepositions. You may have a problem if

1. You have circled more than one or two nominalizations per clause;

2. You have circled prepositions that do not refer to place or time (such as "of," "by," or "with"). 

Revise Ask "WHO is doing WHAT?" for each main clause:

1. Identify the main action of the sentence – WHAT is going on? If a sentence contains too many nominalizations, then that main action will probably be in a noun, so change the noun into a verb.

2. Identify the person, group of persons, thing, or concept – the WHO –
performing the action.

3. Rewrite the sentence around this WHO-WHAT, agent-action pair.
 
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Too Many Nominalizations: An Example
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" Determination of strong and weak areas in documentation is possible through performance observation. Definition of testing objectives in clear, unambiguous terms with the possibility of easy measurement is an important part of the process (Queipo 186)."
 
 
Diagnose Draw a line under the first six or seven words of each sentence.

Obtaining representative users and requiring assembly of the model using the manual provided with the kit is the definition of usability testing. Determination of strong and weak areas in documentation is possible through performance observation. Definition of testing objectives in clear, unambiguous terms with the possibility of easy measurement is an important part of the process (Queipo 186).

You have a problem because
1. You have not underlined subjects that name a character;

2. You have not underlined verbs that name a specific action; and

3. You have underlined nominalizations that are not terms of art and do not refer back to the verb of the previous sentence.

Alternatively, circle (here, boldface) all nominalizations and prepositions:

Determination of strong and weak areas in documentation is possible through performance observation. Definition of testing objectives in clear, unambiguous terms with the possibility of easy measurement is an important part of the process (Queipo 186). 

You have a problem because

1. You have circled more than one or two nominalizations per clause, and

2. You have circled prepositions that do not refer to place or time (such as "of," "by" or "with"). 
   
Revise
1. WHAT is going on?

2. WHO is performing the action.

3. Rewrite the sentence around this WHO-WHAT, agent-action pair.
 
Sentence 1 WHAT

Determination of strong and weak areas in documentation is possible through performance observation

WHO

Allied can determine. . . .

Allied observes. . . .

users perform assembly (i.e., assemble). . . .

REVISION

By observing users assemble the model, Allied will be able to determine which parts of its documentation are strong and which are weak.  

Sentence 2 WHAT

Definition of testing objectives in clear, unambiguous terms with the possibility of easy measurement is an important part of the process (Queipo 186).

WHO

Allied (should) define. . . .

Allied
can measure. . . .

REVISION

Allied should also define the objectives for these tests in clear, unambiguous terms which can be easily measured (Queipo 186).
 

**** Note that in order to make this passage clear, we didn't need to change every single nominalization into an active verb whose agent precedes it.