A nominalization is when you tack a suffix onto an active verb to create a new noun. She calls these “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood out of adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
Academics, lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers love them, presumably because they take ordinary words and make them sound more important. She provides a crystal clear example of the difference. Start with this sentence here:
“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”
Now, this is the same sentence, without all the added baggage:
“Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.”
How much better would our professional lives be if more businesses wrote that clearly? That’s always been a pet peeve of mine. So often, I see people who sound completely normal when speaking; change completely as soon as they have to write something in a business setting. Out come all the fancy-schmancy twenty-dollar words, whose only purpose is to make an ordinary statement sound more intellectual.
Sometimes it’s better to “use your head” than “utilize your thought processes.”
When I first took the training course to learn how to write procedures, my completion certificate came with a great saying, “Good writing is clear thinking, made visible.” (Bill Wheeler – Technology Consultant/Writer)
My previous boss almost always wrote “utilize” when “use” would do just as well. I would always change it when proofreading, saying, “Why put the longer word when the shorter one means the exact same thing?”
He’d always agree, but then there it would be the next time. The habit is hard to kick, I guess.
Ever since I came to my current department, it’s been a goal of mine to simplify the language we use in our department memos and procedures. I’m lucky that my bosses see it the same way. When I interviewed, I told her that I’m not one for long-winded writing and puffery; my documents would be clear and direct. She said that was exactly what they wanted, so it was a match made in heaven.
At the end of the Times article, there was a link to the Writer’s Diet Test. Here, you can submit a sample of your writing and obtain instant feedback and evaluation on how “fat” your writing is.
I’m a sucker for things like that, so I submitted one of my blog posts. To be sure not to sway the evaluation by using one of my more simplistic posts, like the one with all the dick jokes, I went the other way. I used the one where I was explaining why I vote Democratic, because I was pitching an argument and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.
This was the scale that I got back:
I was pleasantly surprised. I was between “lean” and “fit and trim” in all but one category. I have to shape up my “waste words.” In re-reading what I’d submitted, I think the criticism was valid. I found a number of places where I could have eliminated some of the filler and written more directly.
Overall I was given a rating of:
If only it applied to other areas as well.
I bookmarked the test site and plan on using it at work, as a check on myself when I’ve got an important communication in the works.
So what about you? Want to test one of your posts and see how you stack up? Let us know how you did, in Comments.
Note: the test is not really meant for highly descriptive, sensory-type stuff. It was designed to promote clear business writing. The romance novel you’re secretly working on probably wouldn’t be the best test subject.
Another Note: I used the Writer’s Diet Test site on this post and while I got another “Fit and Trim,” the proportions were different. Waste Words were down to “Fit and Trim” but Verbs were up to “Needs Toning.” But that’s good because you have to realize that I was providing examples of the bad writing within the text and using the word "was" a lot.
What this shows is the testing tool can help a writer tone up his writing immediately!