Just Say Know

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.

  1. Many nominalizations sound pretentious. If you use them, you could sound pretentious. Instead of “I have made mention,” you can say, “I mentioned.”
  2. 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

  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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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”?
  6. 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.
  7. 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]
give testimony testify
give warning warn
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 payment pay
make provision provide
make reference refer
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
make clear clarify
make plans plan
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
provide assistance assist help

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.”