Just Say Know
by Ken Bresler
The Vocabula Review, January 2003
A simple way to improve your writing is to avoid using nominalizations. A nominalization is a device of grammar that turns verbs into nouns. For example, the nominalization “give consideration to” can and should be “consider.” “Make provision for” can and should be “provide.”
I can think of seven reasons to avoid nominalizations.
- Many nominalizations sound pretentious. If you use them, you could sound pretentious. Instead of “I have made mention,” you can say, “I mentioned.”
- Nominalizations use more words and syllables than necessary, and therefore slow down the comprehension of your readers or listeners.
Words Syllables make a determination 3 7 determine 1 3
- If you have limited space or time — for example, your speech cannot run past 8 1/2 minutes; your legal brief cannot be longer than 24 pages; or your website content has to fit into a 2-by-4-inch column — recasting nominalizations into single-word verbs is a painless way to meet constraints.
- Nominalizations dilute the power of your sentences. If you write “give permission to,” only one of three words matters: “permission.” The rest of the phrase is filler. If, however, you use the verb “permit,” you have a tighter sentence.
- Nominalizations violate a principle of good writing: use strong verbs. In the nominalization “make payment of,” the verb “make” is weak. It is especially weak compared to the word you could use, “pay.”
Which phrase is stronger: “pay me” or “make payment to me”?
- Nominalizations violate another principle of good writing: verbs are easier to understand than nouns. Comparison is a concept. Compare is an act. It is easier to imagine a person comparing things than making a comparison of them.
- Nominalizations can leave out important information. Consider, for example, “I provided an assessment.” It is a complete sentence. It can stand alone. But what is it that you assessed? It might not matter, but then again, it could matter a lot.
If you wrote, “I assessed,” you feel impelled to fill in what comes next. You almost have to identify what you assessed, which can be important.
Here are some common nominalizations and substitutes you can use.
|Instead of||Try using|
|cause damage to||damage [as a verb]|
|cause embarrassment to||embarrass|
|cause harm to||harm [as a verb]|
|cause injury to||injure|
|cause irreparable harm to||harm irreparably|
|cause irreparable injury to||injure irreparably|
|give advice to||advise|
|give consent||consent [as a verb]|
|give consideration to||consider|
|give notice to||notify or tell|
|give notification to||notify or tell|
|give permission to/for||permit [as a verb]|
|have an objection||object [as a verb]|
|have control of/over||control [as a verb]|
|have hope||hope [as a verb]|
|have knowledge of||know|
|have need of||need|
|have the appearance of||appear|
|make a concession||concede|
|make a confession||confess|
|make a contribution||contribute|
|make a decision||decide|
|make a determination||determine|
|make a distinction||distinguish|
|make a finding||find|
|make an addition||add|
|make an assumption||assume|
|make an objection||object [as a verb]|
|make an observation||observe|
|make application to||apply|
|make a promise||promise [as a verb]|
|make a suggestion||suggest|
|make changes||change [as a verb]|
|make mention of||mention|
|make use of||use|
|provide a comparison||compare|
|provide a description||describe|
|provide assistance to||assist or help|
|provide a summary||summarize|
|take action||act [as a verb]|
The general way to create a nominalization, as well as a tipoff that you’re using one, is:
A common verb before a noun that has a verb form give “warning” has a verb form “warn” have “knowledge” has a verb form “know” make “application” has a verb form “apply”
Here are some more nominalizations and substitutes.
|Instead of||Try using|
|I am doubtful||I doubt|
|I am hopeful||I hope|
|I am of the belief||I believe|
|I am of the opinion||I believe|
|I have confidence||I am confident|
|it is my belief||I believe|
|it is my expectation||I expect|
|it is my intention||I intend|
|it is my observation||I have observed|
|it is my preference||I prefer|
|it is my recommendation||I recommend|
|it is my suggestion||I suggest|
|it is my understanding||I understand|
|make an effort||try|
|take a wait-and-see attitude||wait and see or wait|
You can’t avoid all nominalizations. Some nominalizations do not mean the same thing as the corresponding one-word verbs.
|This nominalization||Does not always mean the same thing as|
|give a presentation||present [as a verb]|
|have a meeting||meet|
|provide service to||serve|
Similarly, “reach a decision” does not mean exactly the same thing as “decide.” “Reach a decision” implies a process; so do “reach an agreement” and “reach a conclusion.” That’s the richness of English.
|This nominalization||Does not always mean exactly the same thing as|
|reach a conclusion||conclude|
|reach a decision||decide|
|reach an agreement||agree|
Don’t worry about the nominalization “give notice” — in the context of notifying your employer that you’re leaving your job. To say “I gave notice” is easily understood, and shorter than “I told my employer that that I’m leaving my job.”
Also don’t worry about the nominalization “have a confession to make.” It might even be a double nominalization, a combination of “have a confession” and “make a confession.” Yet it’s easy to understand.
I can think of only two nominalizations that don’t risk sounding pretentious. “Make a decision” is conversational and common enough to pass for “decide.” Still, if you want to make every word count, use “decide.”
Similarly, “make sure” is more conversational than “ensure,” and possibly less pretentious. It might even be better than “ensure.”
I can think of two nominalizations to watch for carefully. If you shorten “have possession of” to “possess,” you still sound pretentious. Try using “have.”
If you shorten “make utilization of” to “utilize,” you still have gobbledygook. Try using “use.”
Similarly, watch out for these nominalizations.
|You could shorten this nominalization||to…||but it’s better to use…|
|give notice to||notify||tell|
|give notification to||notify||tell|
|make an inquiry of||inquire||ask|
|make inquiry of||inquire||ask|
When the U.S. government adopted its policy on gays in the military, it became called “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the military shouldn’t ask its personnel or prospective personnel if they are gay, and the personnel or prospective personnel shouldn’t tell the military that they’re gay. It’s a punchy name for a policy, four words with a total of four syllables, and much better than “Don’t make inquiry, don’t give notification.”
Now that you have knowledge of what nominalizations are, just say “know.”