How to Improve Your Writing: Avoid Nominalizations

Academic Writing

Writing tips on wordiness reduction

In the first part of a series of editing tips, we will show you how to strengthen your writing effectively. The next few posts will cover the most frequent writing issues we see in our clients’ submissions–namely wordiness. We hope that these overviews and exercises help you reduce word count, clarify your writing, and improve your papers!

Tip # 1:  Verbs Before Nouns (Avoid nominalizations)

Let’s look at the following examples:

  1. We should take into consideration several factors.
  2. He must make a decision about what to do.
  3. They gave us information about the new research program.

What’s wrong with the above sentences? Grammatically, they’re correct. But, they’re less powerful because they use nominalized verbs. That is, instead of using strong verbs, these examples use weaker noun versions of those verbs.

  1. We should take into consideration several factors. [7 words]
  2. He must make a decision about what to do. [9 words]
  3. They gave us information about the new research program. [9 words]

Above, we highlighted the nominalizations in red. For each of these examples, we can delete the prepositions and articles and reduce the phrases to one word. As you can see, when you’re trying to stay within a specific word count, eliminating these grammar constructions helps tremendously.

  1. We should consider several factors. [5 words]
  2. He must decide about what to do. [7 words]
  3. They informed us about the new research program. [8 words]

Another issue with nominalization is that it often creates passive voice constructions. Let’s look at the following example:

 × The analysis of how X-factor impacts B gene expression was conducted. [11 words]

 We analyzed X-factor’s impact on B gene expression. [8 words]

By shifting the nominalization to a verb, we establish an active voice and remove prepositions.

If you examine the most common nominalizations, you’ll notice a pattern. Phrases using “make” and “take,” gerunds (verb+ing), or nouns typically ending in -tion-sion-ment-ence, and -ance usually have strong verb counterparts. So, when you edit your documents, use the search function in your word processing software to locate these specific endings and verbs. Then revise, accordingly!

When should you revise nominalizations?

Sometimes nominalizations are unavoidable or necessary; however, we often depend on them more than we should. Below, we list the most common cases in which you should revise nominalized phrases.

  1. Meaningless verb + nominalization: Delete the meaningless one and convert the nominalization into the main verb
    • Joe will conduct research on the impact of the recent drought on local wildlife. → Joe will research the recent drought’s impact on local wildlife.
    • The board will make a decision next week about whether to accept you next week. → The board will decide next week whether to accept you.
  2. When the nominalization is the subject of a passive voice structure: Identify the true subject, and convert nominalization to a verb for that subject.
    • The approval of the plan was given by the committee yesterday. → The committee approved the plan yesterday.
  3. Back-to-back nominalizations: Make the first a verb, and keep the second or change the second to a question-word phrase.
    • Their interpretation of the implementation of the institute’s program was insightful. → They insightfully interpreted how the institute implemented its program.
    • First was their introduction of their analysis of dreams by the trauma patients. → First, they introduced how they analyzed the trauma patients’ dreams.
  4. When a nominalization in the subject is connected to a nominalization in the predicate [This is a hard one!]: Change each nominalization to a verb. Then consider the logical connection between the two parts and add the appropriate connectors (because, when, if, although, even though, despite, etc.).
    • Her understanding of the situation was evidenced by the quitting of her job. → She understood the situation … she quit her job → When she quit her job, she showed she understood the situation.

Now, let’s try a few exercises!

Beginner

  1. We made an agreement not to buy the house.
  2. They reached the conclusion that we should run a new cohort study.
  3. Our review of the test results will begin tomorrow.

Intermediate

  1. The discovery of a new planet by the Frankfurt Observatory excited the scientific community.
  2. The failure of the staff to organize the festival properly was a disappointment to us.
  3. The undertaking of building the new company was complicated by their lack of experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Answer key:

  1. We agreed to not buy the house.
  2. They concluded that we should run a new cohort study.
  3. Starting tomorrow, we will review the test results.
  4. The Frankfurt Observatory discovered a new planet, which excited the scientific community.
  5. When the staff failed to organize the festival properly, they disappointed us.
  6. They lacked experience, which complicated how they built the new company.

 

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