Rogue Ink

June 12, 2008

War on English: The Evil Nominalization

Filed under: Out of Context,The War on English — Tei @ 5:58 am

You may not know what nominalizations are, but you know them when you read them. You know because your brain is unable to focus on the words, as though they were a verbal blind spot. You cannot quite comprehend what the words are attempting to tell you, and you promptly decide you don’t care, because it’s too difficult, and it probably wasn’t important anyway.

The phenomenal Douglas Adams (may his atheist soul no longer exist, for it is so he wished it to be and we honor the wishes of Douglas Adams above all other British humor writers, always excepting the ubiquitous P.G. Wodehouse, for whom Adams himself had intense admiration, so we feel that he would be down with playing second fiddle to him) called the nominalization an S.E.P.

S.E.P. standing, of course, for Someone Else’s Problem.

S.E.P.s worked thusly: When a large spaceship containing homicidal androids landed in the middle of Lord’s Cricket Ground in England, bystanders’ eyes simply refused to focus on it. They would look through it, over it, anywhere but at it, while aforementioned homicidal androids methodically killed folk.

That is what a nominalization is.

It is not as cool as it sounds.

The Set-Up

When you write web copy, or print copy, or really anything in a written form, there should always something important about the message you’re delivering. That message does not have to be earth-shatteringly important. Not, just to pick an example out of nowhere, spaceship containing homicidal androids in the middle of a cricket field important. The message does have to have some significance to your audience, though. Your message should talk about something they want, or need, or didn’t know they needed, but now must have, like an iPhone.

If there is nothing significant in what you are writing, please put the pen down and back away slowly, lest I be forced to break out the nunchucks. Writing with no purpose is how bad poetry starts, people. Just say no.

Now then. You have your significant message. Let us say that your message is that you have an excellent new product. This product that will tell off your evil in-laws for you. Not only that, it will do so with excellent timing and perfectly calculated barbs detailing their personal foibles, nervous tics, and sexual deficiencies. Pretty sweet. We’re all excited about it. Tell me, say I. Tell me about this magnificent product, that does something that I personally have wanted to do forever. Oh sweet fancy Moses, tell me about it.

Enter the Evil Nominalization and Its Accompanying Ominous Theme Music

With the utilization of this product, the target of the chastisement will receive a message calibrated for optimal insult impact. The calculation of optimal insult impact is determined by the consideration of five demographics which may include relationship to spouse, relationship to offspring, personal deficiencies, body odor, and possession of pornography.

Admit it. Until I got to the bit about porn, you were dozing off. And that was a mightily cool product, people. There is no earthly reason it should be that boring. Except for the evil, evil nominalization and its buddy the passive voice, the latter of which will become acquainted with the force of roguish wrath another day.

I had an English professor who brought in an amazing example of the true evil to which the nominalization could stoop. Those of you who are a bit squeamish may wish to skip this passage. You will understand when I tell you it involves not only the nominalization, but also insurance agents and lawyers.

Yes. I know. Please avert the eyes of your children.

The Ultimate Evil of the Nominalization.

My professor had recently bought a car. The manufacturers of that car sent her a letter after she signed on the dotted line. It ran as follows. (WARNING: Reading the following passage may result in a 1% decrease in your overall innocence. No one will think any less of you for skipping it and going straight to the translation. No one. Least of all Buddha.)

A defect which involves the possible failure of a frame support plate may exist on your vehicle. This plate (front suspension pivot bar support plate) connects a portion of the front suspension to the vehicle frame, and its failure could affect vehicle directional control, particularly during heavy brake application. In addition, your vehicle may require adjustment service to the hood secondary catch system. The secondary catch may be misaligned so that the hood may not be adequately restrained to prevent hood fly-up in the event the primary latch is inadvertantly left disengaged. Sudden hood fly-up beyond the secondary catch while driving could impair visibility. In certain circumstances, occurrence of either of the above conditions could result in vehicle crash without prior warning.

Did you get that? Neither did most people. Here’s what that message actually said, without the nominalizations:

There are two problems with your vehicle. Either of these problems could result in your losing control of the vehicle. One of the problems has to do with steering, the other with your hood flying up and covering your windshield with a noise calculated to scare the beejeezus out of you. If either of those things happens (oh, and they will) you will probably soon be crashing head-on into another car, a tree, a small pony, or other large and uncomfortably knobbly object. Stay away from the death trap. Warning, warning, danger Will Robinson. Or actually, go ahead and drive the death trap. We did warn you, after all. Our legal butts are covered, and our insurance isn’t going to pay up. Nyah nyah nyah.

P.S. Death!

Insurance agents and lawyers calculated that message. It was designed to inform people without actually informing them, so that they would not return their cars, insisting on a refund and threatening the lives’ of the mechanic’s beloved puppies. The letters were delivered; the people were warned. Except they weren’t. They were all lying in boredom-induced catatonic states, drooling and praying no one would use the phrase ‘secondary catch’ at them again. Ever.

The insurance company was covered. The lawyers had done their duty, making sure all the information was in the letter. The people had been warned. The thing is, nominalizations parked themselves in front of the real information like big, fat S.E.P.s and refused to move. And no one heard the real message in the background, squeaking, “DEATH!”

Moral of the Story: When Lawyers and Insurance Companies Use a Linguistic Device, Stay Clear. Also, Nudity is Attention-Getting.

If you are not a lawyer or an insurance agent, you don’t want to obscure your message. You want to show it off. You want to strip it naked, paint it bright red, put rings on its fingers and bells on its toes and send it through town doing acrobatics on the back of a two-headed goat. If you have a message that is this attention-grabbing and you throw the big black garbage bag of nominalization over it, you are doing a disservice to us all.

Okay, you say. I get it. No nominalizations. What are they again? My eyes, they just . . . couldn’t . . . seem to – I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to read it properly. What was all that about? Was that a spaceship?

No problem. That’s to be expected. Here’s a specific nominization from the previous example.

vehicle directional control

You probably know what that means, when you think about it hard enough. Adams says not to look at it head-on, just sneak up on it and glance out of the corner of your eye. That helps. Vehicle directional control basically means steering.

‘Loss of vehicle directional control’ means ‘you won’t be able to steer.’

Bad news bears.

The English Major Definition

The nominization is the removal of a subject from a sentence. Instead of ‘she took’, the nominalization is ‘the taking’. Instead of ‘he broke’, the nominalization is ‘the breaking’. Nominalization is the horror that is verbs masquerading as subjects.

As we all learned in our primary school, subjects and verbs go together, hand in hand, like happy little dance partners.

She ran

He fell

They took

The vicious little verbs murdered their happy little dance partners and are now spinning gleefully all alone in the middle of the dance floor, attempting to summon Mephistopholes.

The running

The falling

The taking

Oh NO. Save us all.

Why Was This Horrific Thing Invented? Why Gods Why?

Easy. It took people out of the equation. Go back up. Look at those examples. See any pronouns? Anyone saying ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘we’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘s/he’ for you bigendered people out there? No? Me neither.

Nominalizations mean you don’t have to get people involved. It’s no one’s fault that the car doesn’t work properly. It’s no one’s situation. The situation is just there, all on its own. And we’d rather you didn’t examine it too closely.

Or, in nominalization-speak, ‘Examination of the problem will result in uncomfortable surety that an entity (which shall remain unattached to homo sapiens sapiens of any kind) may have royally fucked up.’

People like to read about other people. They want to know about your product, your message, your human nature. Do not be an S.E.P., and do not make your message into an S.E.P. to avoid mentioning the humans behind it.

Unless, of course, you’re not human. That is a problem for another day.

Subscription to the weblog under perusal will bring enthused sensations to certain parties.


  1. The best illustration of the perils of passive, corporatised writing as I have ever seen.

    Having worked in the world of corporate communications for some years, amongst people who hold up such drivel as the height of sophistication, I am constantly on alert for this kind of thing in my own writing. I think I fight a good fight most days.

    Comment by Rebecca Leigh — June 12, 2008 @ 7:09 am | Reply

  2. WOW! This post caused a *light bulb* moment for me. I won’t waste your comments space rambling on about Why Nominalisation Has Ruined My Life, but I’ll def’ly ping ya.

    Comment by Sunili — June 12, 2008 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  3. […] just read a blog post that made me understand why this is happening. It was totally a *light bulb* […]

    Pingback by Why Sunili Can’t Read Good No More « because I said so — June 12, 2008 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  4. *cheers and claps* Okay. You make a grammar and English lesson FUN. That is the best thing I’ve ever seen on how to write in AGES.

    Maybe you should be a writer or somethin’.

    Comment by James Chartrand - Men with Pens — June 12, 2008 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  5. That’s just like work….where management has nominalized everything to death.

    “The expectation is that you fulfill your comittments”

    as opposed to

    “I want this on my desk by the end of tomorrow…or your ass is grass”.

    WHEN did we stop learning to communiate in English?

    Comment by Friar — June 12, 2008 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  6. This cracks me up. You totally nailed it–lawyers, corporate types, et cetera do it on purpose to tell people without telling them. It’s like those disclaimers at the ends of radio ads where the guy starts talking a million words a minute and you have no idea what he’s saying.

    Comment by Jennifer — June 12, 2008 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

  7. Tei, there are days when I read what you write and think, “She’s out of her fracking mind.”

    Then, there are days like this, when I think, “She’s a gorram genius. I feel like a talentless hack in her presence.”

    Good form, Roguie.

    Comment by Bob Younce at the Writing Journey — June 12, 2008 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  8. Well said, Tei!

    It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder how lawyers and insurance executives can sleep at night.

    Time for the tweeting. [ducks for cover]

    Comment by Matt Tuley, Laptop for Hire — June 12, 2008 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  9. Rebecca: Thank you. Evil corporate writing. ::shakes fist::

    James: Oh, little ol’ me? Nah. I think I want to be a toothpaste salesman. Yeah!

    Sunili: Nice post. Yeah, law school’s full of nominalizations. My friend used to give me headaches with the stuff she’d bring home.

    Friar: Fight the good fight, Friar. I’m with you. We shall prevail.

    Jennifer: It is like that guy. We HATE that guy.

    Bob: Out of my frackin’ mind, hm? Do not be fooled by the big words. They conceal much madness. Even today. Mwahaha!

    Matt: Oh, no, we decided it was okay to use the tweeting to shamelessly self-promote. Tweet away.

    Comment by Tei — June 12, 2008 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  10. OK, maybe both. You’re out of your mind and you make me feel like a talentless hack. How’s that?

    Comment by Bob Younce at the Writing Journey — June 12, 2008 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

  11. Ah yes,

    excellent, My English teacher would have been So Proud and could have quit gritting his teeth while hissing:

    Get to the point!

    Comment by wendikelly — June 12, 2008 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  12. I worked in a law office years ago, and I found that I had an irresistible compulsion to translate “lawyerese” into English when typing drafts from dictaphone tapes. One boss used to chastise me severely for “ruining his style”, and the other used to thank me for making his “shit make sense”.

    Being a fan of your blog, I’m sure you can guess which lawyer I liked better. I just wish I had an email for the other one so I could send him a link to this post!

    Comment by jimsmuse — June 12, 2008 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  13. Jimsmuse, I wish you worked with all the shithead lawyers who wrote the trollop I’m reading at work right now (well, should be reading…)

    Comment by Sunili — June 12, 2008 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

  14. I wanted to say “Wow”, but somebody else already said it, so now I have to search for another, equally exclamatory expression, after which I would say, “That was a great post.” For me, it kind of put a different perspective on how to avoid a poor form of writing. Thank you for this!


    Comment by Margaret — June 13, 2008 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  15. Excellent post, as ever!

    Comment by Trudi Topham — June 13, 2008 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

  16. @Tei: Bloody brilliant! Again. Damn you, woman. I echo both James and Bob right now, because I’m fresh out of sufficient compliments.

    Comment by Steph — June 13, 2008 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

  17. “Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.”
    -E.B. White


    Comment by Steph — June 13, 2008 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

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