NOMINALIZATION : the use of a word which is not a noun (e.g. a verb, an adjective or an adverb) as a noun,


This is an interesting concept.   Before you click it away, pay attention to what it is, and then make a decision as to whether it is just a boring intellectual exercise, or the answer to a question you may have had, but never asked.

There are words that were originated to be specific parts of speech.  Verbs, Adverbs, Adjectives, Nouns, etc.   But someplace along the way, someone in their acquired wisdom made the decision to transform (morph) such parts as verbs, into nouns.   It made sense to them, and added an aura of intellectual credibility to their writing, so they went ahead with it.

In the development of language, that is the way words or forms of words come into being.   It’s somewhat of a backward way of being created…kind of like cloning, in which artificial life is created using test tubes and other laboratory equipment instead of the tools that have been built into the bodies of animals, including humans.   There is no question that the product is a real creation.   The sheep produced in the labs of European research labs are real sheep.   It is their method of being created that is questionable.   Especially when we move from sheep to human beings.

In linguistics, the creation of such words through nominalization is not something up for grabs as a potential exercise.  It already exists.  The question is whether the words created should be employed in a legitimate enterprise.   Maybe it’s just best to ignore them.

But the reality is that they are more and more considered a part of the American English language.   When I wanted to check a piece of research on the word, I simply “Googled” it, and there it was, including a full article about its origin, its use, and the pros and cons of its incorporation into the modern American English language.   Now everything we find on Google is not necessarily to be considered authoritative, but this was at least a signal to me that nominalization has arrived and is not to be played with.

In a sense, it is a self-referential phenomenon.   The word nominalization is, in itself, one of those created words.   In her excellent New York Times Times article on the topic, Helen Sword refers to these words as “Zombie Nouns.”

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.”

Nominalization, as I said, being one of those Zombie nouns, is manufactured from the “nominal” which is used in linguistics to refer to the category of nouns. (You can see that there are a variety of circular patterns of getting to the base of this word and its uses.)

Helen Sword is not the only linguist who can see the disparaging side of the use of nominalizations. And linguistics is not the only field in which the term is applied.  Here is an opinion from the field of industry.

“It’s not just that nominalization can sap the vitality of one’s speech or prose; it can also eliminate context and mask any sense of agency. Furthermore, it can make something that is nebulous or fuzzy seem stable, mechanical and precisely defined. . . .

“Nominalizations give priority to actions rather than to the people responsible for them. Sometimes this is apt, perhaps because we don’t know who is responsible or because responsibility isn’t relevant. But often they conceal power relationships and reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction. As such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business. They emphasize products and results, rather than the processes by which products and results are achieved.”
(Henry Hitchings, “The Dark Side of Verbs-as-Nouns.” The New York Times, April 5, 2013)


Illustration Credit: NY Times

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