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  • Deconstructing Academic Writing: A Look at Nominalization

    Read both versions:

    Library stacksVersion 1: First coined by John Williams in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, “nominalization” is the term used to describe the transformation of a verb into a noun, thereby creating a complex sentence that satisfies the traditional expectations of academic writing.

    Version 2: In other words, by transforming verbs into their noun equivalents, students and academics can create complex sentences that are traditionally expected in academic writing. This process is called “nominalization,” a term which was first coined by John Williams in his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.

    The two paragraphs above say exactly the same thing; however, the first is packed with nominalizations. Two examples include “the transformation of a verb,” which was “unpacked” to “by transforming verbs into,” as well as “satisfies the traditional expectations of,” which became “traditionally expected in.” Academic writing is known for its thick, muddy sentences choked with nominalizations and noun phrases, and not everyone agrees this is the best way to communicate.

    Helen Sword (2012) advocates that such overuse of these “zombie nouns” results in work that is dry, uninteresting, and incredibly difficult to read. She maintains that it depersonalizes writing by “cannibalising active verbs, sucking the lifeblood from adjectives and substituting abstract entities for human beings.” Considering that the content of the articles themselves is often rife with exciting new ideas, it seems a shame that the reading experience is greeted with little enthusiasm. An argument has consequently been put forward that the use of nominalization detracts from the overall quality and purpose of clear communication or, at its very worst, “can impede communication entirely.”

    Studies were done by Spyridakis and Isakson (1998) in a bid to discover whether the use of nominalization affects the overall recall and understanding of article content. While their findings were inconclusive, results indicated that text containing nominalization was read more slowly and often with less comprehension and long-term recall. However, countering this was the impact of text hierarchy: articles written with high-level nominalized language were verified faster than those without. In other words, complex language is like wearing a suit to a job interview; it doesn’t matter what the article contains, as articles written in the style of academia are more likely to be read with gravity.

    Continuing with our analogy regarding job interview fashion, however, we would also not be well received in a tux and tails. An article containing excessive nominalization is likely to result in the reader focusing more on the deconstruction of the language than the content itself. An excessive amount of anything is not a good thing. Nominalization has a role to play in academic text: it gives us the option of being more abstract and impersonal, it emphasizes the main point without dwelling on less significant issues, and it allows us to squeeze more information into fewer words.

    Therefore, regardless of the controversy surrounding nominalization and complex sentences in academic writing, there’s no arguing the fact that they’re imperative to master if you want to be taken seriously within your field. So, here’s how you start:

    1. Learn to identify nominalized expressions in writing. There are a few tricks (that are not foolproof), such as looking for “of” between two nouns or noun phrases.
    2. Match verbs to nouns and nouns to verbs. For example, “collide” = “collision.” Pay attention to the ends of words (suffixes) and you may find some patterns. For example, verbs ending in “d” are usually replaced with the suffix “sion” when being changed into a noun. Use these little “rules” to help with spelling in all word forms.
    3. Create your own complex noun phrases. Start by producing a simple N V N (Noun Verb Noun) structure. For example, the phrase “Study deserves success” can be built upon by using adjectives: “Diligent study deserves anticipated success.” Or use a quantifier: “Diligent study deserves much anticipated success.” Finally, add a post-modifier: “The diligent study of English deserves much anticipated success.”
    4. Use the above noun phrase and process of nominalization to create a rich sentence packed with information. For example, you could write, “Researchers’ deductions regarding the anticipated success of the diligent study of English inspired a fresh intake of new students to the university.”

    Ultimately, English text, academic or otherwise, is about communication, and a good text is not one that necessarily uses big words but rather is able to convey a complex idea clearly, such that the average person can understand and absorb it. If you're interested in working with an editor to convey your academic message more clearly, click here.

    To see our full range of academic services, click here. We offer everything from translation to dissertation coaching to machine learning consulting.


    This post was brought to you by Anna Stewart, an experienced ESL teacher. She wrote and published a book called Foxy Phonics that is sold throughout Japan. She now lives in Australia and teaches ESL students all over the world through

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  • Comments on this post (1 comment)

    • Ivan Schmetterling says...

      Nominalizations are the death of the language, adding clutter where concision is needed. Why on earth would anyone believe “The employment of verbs as nouns is preferred” is better than “Academics prefer using verbs as nouns”? Academic language is artificial, unnecessary and employed only so the user can feel superior to the non-user. It curses higher education.

      So sayeth this academic.

      On April 01, 2019

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