Useful Nominalizations


It may seem that we've represented nominalizations as an unalloyed bane to good writing. In fact, we've exaggerated their bad effects in order to make a point. Not all nominalizations are bad — indeed, some of them are necessary in good writing. Here are some occasions when you will want to use a nominalization instead of a verb:
 
The nominalization is a subject that refers to something in the previous text:

These arguments all depend on a single untested variable.
This decision may have substantial consequences.

The nominalization names what would be the object of its verb:

I do not understand her intention/what she intends.
We must examine all of their proposals /everything that they propose.

The nominalization names a frequently repeated concept known to all

Few issues have so divided America as ABORTION on DEMAND.
A major issue in past ELECTIONS was the Equal Rights AMENDMENT.

The nominalization is a standard technical term or a bit of insider talk.

Some nominalizations name the standard concepts in a field –technical terms to those who use them, jargon to outsiders. When a nominalization is a term you and your reader use all the time ("standard deviation," "debt financing"), don't change it to a verb. Unpacking every insider term can mark you as naive or outside the circle, and can even make your document harder for an insider to understand. Typically, you'll also find that these insider terms act as characters in your story:

Debt financing raises the rate of return on assets.

Remember, though, that there are relatively few of these technical terms, and writing on technical, highly-specialized topics should still be clear rather than turgid. Few writers have the problem of using too few technical terms. The more common failing is not to distinguish between insider talk and problematic nominalizations. Here's a sentence written by a law student:

In a civilian request for discovery in an action involving liability for negligence by the military, there is a requirement for a showing of a level of need higher than in other cases.

Four of the first five nominalizations seem to be legitimate insider terms, but two of the last three are not:

When a civilian REQUESTS discovery in an action involving liability for negligence by the military, courts REQUIRE a plaintiff to SHOW a higher level of need than in other cases.