February 27

This video could save your writing

Helen Sword targets one of the key writing-killers that is rampant in academia and non-fiction writing: nominalizations.

You bring a nominalization into existence when you transform a verb or adjective into a noun. For instance, you can turn “provoke” into “provocation.”

Nominalizations, themselves, are not evil, but when we use nominalizations, we tend to combine them with abstract, passive sentences.

Think of this century's nominalized buzz-word: globalization. Yes, we love that word because it means so many different things. Yet, that is the word's downfall, as well. If an author says something like, “Globalization has changed the way we do commerce,” well, you haven't really communicated much of anything. The concept is so abstract, that it's unclear what you even mean by “globalization,” in this context.

Perhaps you mean that because third-party payment services, like PayPal, have made currency acceptance easy, merchants in the U.S. and Asia can now exchange goods and services much more frequently than ever before.

Perhaps you meant something else entirely. When we nominalize our active verbs and adjectives into abstract nominalizations, we often loose clarity and specificity. Good communication, however, requires both clarity and specificity.

For a really wonderful TED video that explains the evil havoc that nominalizations may be wrecking on your writing, watch this:

Or, if you're in a public space without earphones, bookmark the video and read the NYT article for the moment, which is equally enlightening, although not as entertaining.


When you're going back through your writing, look for nominalizations and ask yourself if there's an easier, clearer way that you could write the sentence. You won't look silly for lack of nominalizations in your writing, but you might look silly if your brilliant theory is so convoluted by nominalizations that no one understands quite what you're saying.


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