Lecture 2: Noun Forms of Verbs and Adjectives

The Impact of Nominalisations on Business Writing

Nominalisations are nouns formed from other parts of speech, mainly verbs and adjectives. They are useful when we want to discuss ideas, including theories and concepts, such as “evolution” and “sublimation.” Nominalisations are used in classifying types of a phenomena, for example, deduction, induction, and abduction, which are types of reasoning (referring, respectively, to drawing conclusions based on accepted facts or premises, through observation, according to what seems probable based on what you know).

The noun form of a verb is also handy for second references. For example, “The organisers cancelled the event after the government announced lockdown. The cancellation led to a loss of more than £1,000.”

Everyday language is full of nominalisation such “education,” “communication,” “density,” and “appearance.” “Nominalisation” is itself a nominalisation, formed from the verb “to nominalise.”

Nominalisations become a problem when there are too many of them, slowing the reader down, or when they fail to explain detail that the reader needs to understand.  

Types of nominalisation

There are two types of nominalisations. “Zero-derivation” nominalisations are nouns with the same spelling as their corresponding verb or adjective: “to murder” (verb) and “murder” (noun), “poor” (adjective) and “the poor” (noun), “to silence” (verb) and “silence” (noun).

The second type of nominalisation requires a “derivational suffix.” Among the most common suffixes are: -ion, -ment, -ance , -ence, -ity, -ent, -ant, -age, -ancy, -al, -ness, -ship, ulty. Here are a few examples.

·             to act—action

·             to commit—commitment

·             to negotiate—negotiation

·             to appear—appearance

·             to refuse—refusal

·             to own—ownership

·             to motivate—motivation

·             independent—independence

·             distant—distance

·             proximate—proximity

·             piquant—piquancy

·             difficult—difficulty

·             careless—carelessness


Nominalisations are useful in science, law, academia, and other fields where we need to analyse, classify, and discuss behaviours, processes, or common characteristics. They create “information density,” that is, make it possible for experts in a field to discuss concepts among themselves efficiently. Without nominalisations, talking about theories and concepts would be laborious.


“Creeping Nounism”

Zinsser calls nominalisations “nounisms.” He decries what he calls an American disease “that strings two or three nouns together where one noun—or, better yet, one verb—will do.” Sentences with nounisms tend to have no people in them.

“Today as many as four or five concept nouns will attach themselves to each other, like a molecule chain,” Zinsser writes. “Here’s a specimen I recently found: ‘Communication facilitation skills development intervention.’ Not a person in sight, or a working verb. I think it’s a programme to help students write better.”

Why do people use nominalisations so frequently? One reason may be that they want to do readers a favour by “sparing” them the details and thus saving them time.  Another common misconception among businesspeople is that nominalisations—often big words derived from Latin—sound impressive. But there is little point in showing off your vocabulary if people do not understand what you mean.


How nominalisations affect readability

A text full of nominalisations is difficult to read because of the tendency of such writing to use terminology. Nominalisations and terminology tend to refer to abstract concepts, which are harder for the mind to grasp than commonly used verbs and nouns that paint clear word images for the reader to visualise.

Look at the following example of an abstract for a study entitled, “Corporate Divestiture Decisions and Long-Run Performance,” which appeared in the Journal of Behavioural Finance. I have highlighted most of the nominalisations.

“We examine the post-divestiture long-run performance of two different choices of corporate divestiture, asset sell-offs versus equity carve-outs, and find that the choice of divestiture methods has important implications for the post-divestiture long-run performance. Our findings show that the post-divestiture long-run abnormal returns of sell-off parents are significantly higher than those of the carve-out parents. Furthermore, we find a positive relationship between the post-divestiture long-run returns and the diversification discount. The effect of the diversification discount is weaker for divesting parents with higher levels of R&D. Our results also provide evidence that a firm’s pre-divestiture number of segments, its unrelatedness to the divested unit, and its level of asymmetric information are positively related to the probability of choosing the asset sell-off method.”

Can you imagine having to read several pages with a similar density of nominalisations and terminology. The nominalisations lend themselves to ambiguity. For example, do companies with greater numbers of units tend to opt for selloffs or carve-outs? Does more “asymmetric information” sway the parent company towards selloffs or assets?

I realise the abstract is a summary and that it and research paper appear in a journal with a target audience of specialists. However, that is no excuse for loading a text with nominalisations. Verb forms work just as well—or better. What makes matters worse is that after stopping to work out what these sentences are saying, one discovers the authors have not explained the results of their research as clearly as they could. Using nominalisations and jargon is a lazy writer’s way out. It also makes a bad impression and comes across as sloppy, hurried, and ambiguous.

Below, I have rewritten the abstract with as few nominalisations as possible. I have also avoided jargon and terminology. When I do use “asset selloff” instead of the verb form, “to sell off assets,” it is on second reference. Because I have introduced the idea using the verb, the use of a nominalisation for subsequent references does not make the text more difficult to follow.

“We examine how companies perform in the long term based on whether they decide to divest by selling off assets or maintaining a minority interest in a subsidiary (“carve-outs.”) Our research shows companies that opt for asset selloffs enjoy higher levels of unexpected returns than those that maintain minority stakes. We also find that the discount at which parent companies are valued relative to the sum of their parts narrows after a company divests. Higher research and development costs decrease the impact on the discount. We also find that the choice between selloffs and carve-outs is related to the number of units of the parent company and the extent to which their businesses are related to the divested unit. The degree to which one party enjoys more knowledge than the other also affects the choice between selloffs and carve-outs.