Lecture 3: Ambiguity of Nominalisations

Ambiguity of Nominalisations

Nominalisations are a vital part of language. “Education,” “conclusion,” “engagement,” and “fertility” are nominalisations that people use and understand in everyday contexts.

Nominalisations tend to be abstract words and phrases that may conjure up many possible images in the reader’s mind.

Moreover, they often refer to generalisations that may fail to present the whole picture.  Within a couple of days of being arrested on charges of murder in a high-profile murder case, one newspaper reported that the suspect “sustained injuries to his head” while in jail. “Injuries” is of course the plural of “injury,” which is the nominalisation of “to injure.” Using the verb, the report would have said, “injured his head when . . ..” something happened. Did he trip and fall while trying to escape from the police van on the way to prison? Had a policeman or another prisoner beat him up? Obviously, in a murder investigation, the suspect’s head injuries cause less concern than knowing who killed the victim and why. I merely point out that the nominalisation causes the reader to pause and think about what happened. It is an abstraction—tissue damage that of varies types and causes—and ambiguous.

Because nominalisations can signify more than one possibility, the mind must make choices when seeing them. Sometimes the obvious choices do not fit. It is much easier for the mind to grasp meaning when concrete language is used to create a mental image.


Camden Council case study

Let us look at the same extract from the Camden Council review of its finances that we analysed in the first section of the course on jargon.

“We will continue systems-thinking work to identify failure demand, the underlying causes of it and co-design solutions to reduce it, ensuring we design services around our residents and service users.”

The text uses the nominalised form of the word “work.” In this context, the noun “work” is an abstract notion that conjures up many different images. “Work” is modified by “systems-thinking,” which narrows down the type of work a bit. Still, the mind struggles to picture “systems-thinking work.” Does it involve a group of people meeting to think about systems and calling their gathering work? Is it a matter of one person sitting at a computer working to think up some sort of system?

“Demand” in this extract is a nominalisation from the verb “to demand.” “Failure” is the nominalisation of “to fail.” Here it is used to modify “demand.” “Failure demand” seems to be the failure to satisfy a demand of some sort. But that is the problem: what sort of demand?

I suggested rewriting the text as: “We will continue to analyse the way the various components of our systems work together and with other systems to avoid unintended consequences, identify areas where we fail to meet the demands of residents, and wind up wasting money I used the verb form of “failure.”

My version may not be ideal. But it is clearer than the original because, first, I have used plain language instead of terminology, and second, in my translation into plain language, I relied on verbs rather than nominalisations. The result is an explanation that paints an image in the reader’s mind and is easier to read even if longer than the original. Given the choice between reading a shorter text with lots of nominalisations, or a longer text with fewer nominalisations, most people would probably choose the latter because they will probably be able to understand it better. They may even finish reading it in less time.

Complete and Continue