Archive for September, 2009

Nominalization, Power and Clarity

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

In general, verbs are more powerful than nouns. Unlike nouns (which deal with objects) verbs introduce action, identify targets, and assign responsibility. So these three – action, targets, and responsibility – are the things that writers are avoiding when they turn verbs into nouns. Turning verbs into nouns is a process we call nominalization (confusingly enough, a word that is itself a noun turned into a verb).

For example, we dodge the assignment of action items when we instead identify one or more asks.

We don’t admit to not knowing, so there’s really nothing for us to learn; instead our meeting resulted in learnings.

Learnings. Disembodied opportunities for enlightenment, fluttering around waiting to settle on the uninformed.

Verbs are instantly neutered when we turn them into nouns in this way. At least, that’s my takeaway from many, many e-mail readings from which the writer has stepped away, attempting to convey information impersonally and without responsibility.

Impersonality and Power

When writers remove themselves from the text in this way they attempt to gain the power that comes from stating facts rather than conveying opinions. Oddly enough, we gain authority when we remove authorship in this way. A similar process is at work when writers use the passive voice – universally said to be a Bad Thing. In both cases, we’re shifting from questionable actors and their actions, to self-evident things.

The following are ranked in order, potentially most powerful first:

  1. New asks for engineering arise from learnings in recent meetings. (Nominalized)
  2. Engineering is requested to provide new features as a result of information provided by recent meetings. (Passive voiced)
  3. We need new features from Engineering because of what we learned in recent meetings. (Action oriented)

At first glance, it may seem useful – it’s certainly popular — to gain authority in these ways; after all, passive voice is the hallmark of scientific literature, and nominalization is favored by marketers. Power comes from the anonymous identification of things, as opposed to personal actions, ownership and assertion.

But the consequence of dodging responsibility in this way for what we write is a corresponding lack of closure. We’re trying to close off debate, shut the text closed and leave the facts to speak for themselves. But critical readers will reject this process of Immaculate Conception, and look behind the text for signs of ownership and the means by which the facts were produced.

Power versus Clarity

So when we nominalize, just as when we resort to the passive voice, we risk trading power for clarity and completeness. When we use the active voice, and when we use verbs rather than nouns, we’re forced to make clear who is behind the action, and very likely what may be the consequence. Take the mix of passive and nominalization in this summary of a technical paper on “Corporate Governance Development in UK and Continental Europe”:

The potential onset of ‘corporate governance fatigue’ is a risk for all publicly-quoted companies, which needs to be resisted strongly. The commitment of corporate Boards to fairness, transparency and accountability has an appreciable effect on whether the greatest practicable enhancement
is achieved over the period of their shareholders” investment. – Watson Wyatt & Company 2005

At first this seems very strong, doesn’t it? It identifies things that are to be resisted, and then says something about achievement and investment. Who could argue with that? But thinking about it, who is resisting strongly here? And what is this greatest practicable enhancement thing? Now we think about it, who said ‘corporate governance fatigue’ and what does that have to do with some period or other?

When we re-verb (de-nominalize) and return to a natural active tense we not only gain clarity, we reduce the word count by more than 50%:

Shareholders’ return on their investments in publicly-quoted companies is higher when corporate boards remember to commit to fairness, transparency and accountability.

Now it’s clear what the point is, who is being told to do something, and what they’re being told to do. In the process, the need for resistance or to consider ‘corporate governance fatigue’ has been removed.

Spotting Nominalization

It’s usually easy to spot passive voice in our own writing and in writing from others, but less easy to identify nominalization. It’s simple when we see words we don’t recognize, or at least don’t recognize as nouns. But as a general rule, whenever things get too wordy the writer is likely compensating for something, the text needs to be unraveled, and often the culprit will be found.

Then reader facilitation can be achieved by a simple process of recomposition.

More on this and other issues concerning clear and effective writing in the upcoming rewrite newsletter.