CBA Record July-August 2023

izations. You may be in the habit of writing with nominalizations and fail to realize it. If so, you can’t “hear” the nominalizations when you read over your prose. You may be used to the more formal, slow writing style. If so, use Microsoft’s word search to help you. Use the editing function in Microsoft Word to search for each of the word endings. (Go to Editor/Find/Advanced find/ Reading Highlights and click “Highlight All” to highlight every word in your document with one of the telltale endings.) Once you identify the suspect noun, ask yourself whether you can turn it into a verb.


Take a verb or adjective and add a suffix. You’ve created a new noun. Sounds impressive, right? Wrong! You just unleashed a flesh-eating zombies... I call them zombie nouns because they consume the living. They cannibal ize active verbs... and they substitute abstract entities for human beings. Do Not Turn Verbs into Nouns (i.e., avoid nominalizations) You may not even realize at first that you’ve created a nominal ization. Why is some writing a slog to get through, but other writing is a fast read? Writing may be unclear for many reasons, but nominalizations are a prime suspect. These verbs or adjectives turned into nouns slow the reader, confuse who is doing what, and add unnecessary length. Cut them from your prose to keep your reader engaged. This column will help you identify nomi nalizations, explain how they hurt your writing, and show you how to fix the problem. What are nominalizations? Nominalizations are verbs or adjectives turned into nouns. The nouns are usually abstract. Common ones end in -ance, -ence, -ery, -ity, -ment, -ness, -sion, -son, or -tion. Some examples might help. Helen Sword, “Beware of Nominalizations (AKA Zombie Nouns),” TED Ed video,

l Decision vs. Decide l Discussion vs. Discuss l Expansion vs. Expand l Intention vs. Intend l Investigation vs. Investigate

Why are nominalizations so bad? Nominalizations slow the prose, inhibit the reader’s understand ing, and make sentences dull. Professor Emerita Helen Sword, who calls nominalizations “Zombie Nouns,” says, “To get a feel ing for how zombie nouns work, release a few of them into a lively sentence and watch some sap all its energy.” If you want to sound like a bureaucrat or a bad lawyer, use nominalizations. Otherwise, avoid them if you can. They make your writing slow, boring, and hard to understand. Nominalizations replace active verbs with weak verbs, such as forms of “to be.” They destroy the powerful verbs that pull the reader across the page. Instead, the reader is left with awkward blocks of abstract nouns connected by small, weak verbs. Such writing is dull and hard to follow. Studies have shown readers understand and recall sentences without nominalizations better. (For more in-depth background, see Jacob M Carpenter, The Problems, and Positives, of Passives: Exploring Why Controlling Passive Voice and Nominalizations Is About More Than Preference and Style, 19 Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD 95 (2022).)

l Parties often:

See the following example:

l Take action , rather than act. l Make a decision , rather than decide. l Reach agreement , rather than agree.

Original, with nominalizations:

l The firm’s fee for the preparation of the witness for his testi mony at trial will be $5,000, regardless of whether there is a settlement in the case prior to the commencement of trial.

l Consider the following nominalizations and their core verbs: l came to a conclusion vs. concluded l utilization of vs. use l stated an objection vs. objected l take into consideration vs. consider How to find nominalizations in your writing With practice, you will be able to identify the verbs-turned-into nouns simply by re-reading your text. Until then, the easiest way is to search for words with the nominalization endings listed above. Start your search with the most common ending: -ion. It is important to have a mechanical, objective way to find nominal

Revision, without nominalizations:

l The firm’s fee to prepare the witness to testify at trial is $5,000, regardless of whether the case settles before trial.

Kathleen Dillon Narko is a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and a member of the CBA Record Editorial Board.

44 July/August 2023

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