A few weeks ago I was reading an email about some new changes to a Chinese learning app I use. There were a few questions that were used as headings, but the one that caught my eye was this: “Is there a way to prioritise the learning of new words?”. Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. It’s a completely normal sentence. It’s not that difficult to understand. But, it caught my eye because it uses something that I think is often unnecessary. I call this “of nominalisation”. Never heard of that term before? Great — because I just made it up! ? (the term not the concept!). Let’s have a look at it to understand it more.
What is nominalisation?
I’m not going to go into great detail here about nominalisation because I’ve already written a post about it. Check it out if you missed it or if you need a refresher. But basically, nominalisation is when we use a non-noun as a noun in a sentence. Here’s an example:
- Non-nominalised: The teacher treated the children unfairly.
- Nominalised: The teacher’s treatment of the children was unfair.
And here’s the example that sparked this whole post:
- Non-nominalised: Is there a way to prioritise learning new words?
- Nominalised: Is there a way to prioritise the learning of new words?
What is “of nominalisation”?
There are a few different types of nominalisation in English, and maybe I’ll write a post in the future about the other ones, but today I want to focus on what I call “of nominalisation”. In simple terms, “of nominalisation” is when we use “of” in noun phrases that have been nominalised from verb phrases.
“Of nominalisation” is very easy to identify because, as the name suggests, it includes “of” in the noun phrase. Generally speaking, “of nominalised” noun phrases are formatted like this:
- a/an/the + nominalised verb + of + another noun phrase
Here are some examples
- the treatment of the children
- the learning of new words
- the writing of plain English
- a refusal of health care
- the applicability of this approach
- an increase of 10%
Now, it’s important to realise that not every noun phrase with “of” is one with “of nominalisation”. Have a look at these examples:
- the department of health
- the mother of my friend
- the plays of Shakespeare
- the north of Australia
So, how do we know that these two sets of examples are different? Well, we can change all of the main nouns in the first set into verbs, but we can’t do that with the main nouns in the second set. Additionally, we can change the word order and also add an apostrophe + “s” to most of the second set and still have the same meaning.
Here’s the first set changed into verb phrases:
- The children were treated . . .
- Learning new words . . .
- Writing plain English . . .
- Refusing health care . . .
- This approach was applicable . . .
- It increased by 10% . . .
And here’s the second set with changed word order and apostrophe + “s” where relevant:
- the health department (the health’s department doesn’t work)
- my friend’s mother
- Shakespeare’s plays
- Australia’s north (okay, this sounds a little odd, so maybe north of Australia is better)
Why is “of nominalisation” problematic?
Now, let me get some things clear here: no part of language is completely problematic, and you can use language however you want to. I don’t enjoy telling people how they have to use language in a certain way and if they don’t do that then it’s bad. I don’t like being a prescriptivist, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. On the contrary, I enjoy empowering and educating people to communicate more effectively and clearly, so that’s my intention here.
So, of course there will be times when using “of nominalisation” will just make sense because there are no other options. And that’s completely fine and valid if it aligns with your audience. But often we just write things a certain way because we’re trying to sound formal or educated about something without thinking about the implications it has for our audience to understand us. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there — myself included!
The problem with “of nominalisation” is that it’s often unnecessary and makes the text overly complex for no reason. It adds more words and more complex sentence structures, which only increases your text’s complexity. But, the best thing is that there are actually some communication strategies you can use instead to make your meaning clearer.
How can I limit “of nominalisation” in my own communication?
I’m not saying that you have to completely avoid “of nominalisation” or even other sorts of nominalisation. That just wouldn’t be feasible or possible. Instead, I’m saying that you can:
- Become aware of the grammatical structures you’re using
- Decide if these are the most appropriate for your audience
- Adjust your text accordingly
Now, from my experience, I find that people are pretty good at knowing that a text is difficult to read and that it isn’t appropriate for their audience, but the hard part is actually adjusting it to meet their needs. You know you want to change it, but you’re just not sure how to. Don’t worry my friend — I’ve got your back! ?
Here are a few things you can do when you want to limit “of nominalisation”:
- Identify the main noun in the nominalised phrase
- Work out if you can change it into a verb and re-arrange the sentence to do so
- If it sounds weird or unnatural with the verb form, try moving parts of the nominalised noun phrase around
- Sometimes you can simply remove “a/an/the” and “of” to make it a verb phrase
- Try adding extra nouns or verbs to help get your message across
It’s a little hard to explain in words sometimes, so here are a few examples to help you.
- Original sentence: Dickens had been affected by the poor treatment of the children in the mines.
- Identify the main noun in the nominalised phrase: the treatment of the children in the mines
- Change it to a verb: treat
- Revised sentence: Dickens had been affected by seeing others treat children poorly in the mines. OR: Seeing others treat children poorly in the mines affected Dickens.
- Original sentence: Several organisations have developed guides to support the writing of plain English summaries.
- Identify the main noun in the nominalised phrase: the writing of plain English summaries
- Remove “the” and “of”: writing plain English summaries
- Revised sentence: Several organisations have developed guides to support writing plain English summaries.
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but just try your best to be creative and come up with something that works for you, your audience, and your situation.
This week’s challenge
This week’s challenge is to try to recognise “of nominalisation” when reading and change it into something more understandable. Of course, you could do this in your own communication too, but I find it’s first easier to read other people’s communication and identify language use there before trying to change your own.
If you’re really bored and want some more practice, let Google help you find examples of “of nominalisation”. You can do this by choosing a nominalised verb form, adding “of”, and putting the whole thing into Google with quotation marks. Try searching for “responsibility of”, “applicability of”, “transportation of”, or “allocation of” in Google for some real language examples that you can try to re-word yourself. Don’t forget to include the quotation marks! Happy language nerding! ?