Lesson Two


(Turning Verbs Masquerading as Nouns Back into Verbs)

You can make sentences shorter, snappier, and more direct by turning some nouns into verbs. The nouns you want to change into verbs have been called “smothered” nouns and “controverted” nouns; some writers call them “nominalizations.” If we use this last term, then the act of liberating the noun in question is “denominalizing”; < Lat. de, from + nomen, name). Think of it as “un-nouning” a noun by converting it to its verbal form.

Why would you want to do this? Because you want your sentences to be lively, forceful, interesting, and concise. When the real action of a sentence is trapped in noun’s clothing, you don’t very often get those effects. When your sentence could display an active, vigorous, working verb, then by George, GRAB that verb.

A common tip-off for recognizing a nominalization is a noun combined with a “fluff” verb. For example:

Researchers conducted an investigation into the problem.

The fluff verb is “conducted”; it sets up the idea of “investigation” as a noun. But since the idea of investigation really is the main idea of the sentence, why not express it as a vigorous, active verb? This change will also make the sentence more concise:

Researchers investigated the problem.

In fact, your original prose may have combined passive voice and nominalization:

An investigation into the problem was conducted by researchers.

As it often happens, denominalizing and switching from passive to active voice work together to create more direct, vigorous, readable sentences. Here’s another example, one burdened with three nominalizations and passive voice:

There was a review of the proposal and a ruling by the committee, but no explanation was offered for their decision.

Here the fluff elements are the “There was” opening and the “was offered” verb. Passive construction blurs the sentence even further. You should be able to see a good rewrite in a flash:

The committee reviewed and ruled on the proposal but did not explain its decision.

Like passives, nominalizations are sometimes appropriate, but scientists, engineers, and other professionals tend to overuse them. Unless you need a nominalization to make a transition or for some other legitimate reason, switch it to verb form. The switch will improve your style.

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