Writing Tip: How To Detect And Correct Nominalizations

A nominalization is a noun you’ve created from a verb or adjective.

Nominalization: The screeching unnerved the rookie.

Screeching is a noun form of the verb to screech. This sentence is weak because readers don’t know who is screeching. When you use the verb to screech you giver yourself room to identify the noisemaker.

Better: The uncooperative suspect screeched, unnerving the rookie.

Nominalizations contain up to three elements. Sometimes you see only one or two of them; other times, all three appear.

  1. A word such as a, an, the, his, her, these, or several.
  2. A noun such as utilization, sadness or taking. This is the only element that always appears in nominalizations.
  3. The word of.

Nominalization: The last step was the collection of the victim’s dust bunnies.

Here the verb to collect has become the noun collection. This sentence is vague because it doesn’t specify who is collecting the evidence. All becomes clear when you use the verb to collect as well as a specific subject.

Better: The forensics team collected the victim’s dust bunnies just before leaving the scene.

Now let’s do an examination of–oops, I mean let’s examine–a nominalization with two elements.

Nominalization: The senior citizen responded to the would-be robber with an exclamation: “Get your hands off my dentures!”

Here the verb to exclaim has become the noun exclamation. Let’s improve the sentence.

Better: The senior citizen exclaimed to the would-be robber, “Get your hands off my dentures!”

Finally, here’s a nominalization with just one element.

Nominalization: Happiness was evident after the clown was arrested.

The sentence is poor because it fails to mention who is happy.

Better: The detective was happy after she arrested the clown.

Nouns that end in -tion and -ing are often nominalizations. Even the word nominalization is a nominalization (it comes from the verb to nominalize).


  1. Nominalizations allow you to omit the subject. When you don’t say who is doing the action, your sentences become vague.
  2. Nominalizations often force you to use weak verbs. Vague subjects go hand in hand with weak verbs such as to be and to do. Although these verbs are integral parts of English, your writing can get rather monotonous if every sentence contains a was or were.
  3. Nominalizations are often wordy. When you reword nominalizations, your sentences usually become more concise.


You should use a specific subject in most cases. However, a nominalization is acceptable if you don’t know who is doing the action, or if the subject is unimportant.

The disappearance of every rat in town puzzled the police.

Paraphrased from The Curious Case Of The Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga ISBN: 978-1-58297-561-2

Writing Tip: Write Short Paragraphs

Your writing will be faster, livelier, and clearer if you write short paragraphs. The reader will welcome the break and the white space. You will be less likely to get tied up in verbal knots. Your thoughts will be better organized and more succinctly expressed. You and the reader will find it easier to locate specific statements.

Taken from “100 Ways To Improve Your Writing” by Gary Provost ISBN 978-0-451-62721-6

Writing Tip: When To Use Passive Voice

There is plenty to draw from when it comes to using Active Voice (i.e. AV). It’s use is preferred over its evil step brother, Passive Voice, and therefore affords plenty of instruction on when and how to use it. Whether we like it or not, once in a while the Passive Voice (i.e. PV) enters our writing in such a way that it seems appropriate. Almost as if it belongs there. Sometimes it does! Now, before the rule writers roll over in their graves and begin clawing at coffin lids to escape and haunt me, let me explain:

In most cases, it would be better to write in the AV. Why? Because with AV, the subject rather than the object is the focus of the sentence. In fact, in many cases, PV allows you to omit the subject all together. And because AV is almost always more concise, vigorous, and authoritative which is generally the aim of all good writing: To say the most with the fewest number of words in the clearest possible way. There ARE times, however, when PV is not only acceptable, but preferred over AV–the Golden Child of the English language. Here are a few examples:

  • When the focus is being done to something rather than by something.
    The wedding cake had to be carried by by eight strong waiters rather than Eight strong waiters had to carry the wedding cake. In this example the wedding cake, not the waiters, is the focus of this sentence.
  • When the doer can be inferred or is not of interest. 
    It would be better to say The cake wasn’t served until two in the morning rather than The waiters didn’t serve the cake until two in the morning.
  • To avoid using first-person singular pronouns.
    For example, instead of I randomly assigned the subjects to each group, saying Subjects were randomly assigned to each group. Here again, the focus of the writing is on what is being done, not on who is doing it.
  • To avoid all-male pronouns.
    Instead of saying The average driver trades in HIS car every four years, you could say The average car is traded in every four years.
  • To deliberately deflect responsibility or conceal information.
    Saying It has been alleged that Mr. Brandon knew about the takeover for months in advance is not the same as saying Mrs. Reisman has alleged that Mr. Brandon knew about the takeover for months in advance. That is, ambiguity in writing is not always the result of carelessness or inattention; sometimes it is quite deliberate.
  • To vary sentence structure.
    Use it simply to avoid monotony. Wording every sentence the same way makes for tedious reading.

Paraphrased from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman ISBN 0-89879-776-4

Writing Tip: Omit Needless Words

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

–William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style