English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

When is it correct to use nominalizations? (Isn't nominalization a nominalization?) It seems the main problem is that they tend to mislead the reader. It is appealing to think that "being" and "understanding" are "things." I see how this sort of misuse of words can be misleading. But when does concise become too compact? The English language seems to nominalize words frequently--and often effectively (I'm thinking of George Eliot).

share|improve this question
Can you give an example where nominalization is inherently misleading? I cannot think of any. Saying, "you are a failure" is much more concise and does not sacrifice any of the meaning of (and is in fact less awkward to say that) "you are one who fails." – Peter Olson Mar 1 '11 at 6:23
He has an understanding of the proposition. (It is as though understanding is a thing like shoe.) It is like this poor joke: a friend told me he had a pain in his shoe. I asked what that meant. He said he'd taken a class on basic syllogisms, and he had a pain in his foot, his foot was in his shoe, and thus, he had a pain in his shoe. I know. It's a poor joke. But this is the sort of bad sentence I mean: "He found the taking of the test to be a difficulty that caused him a great amount of distress" or "he caught a glimpse of recognition on the bartender's face." – Jon Mar 1 '11 at 7:05
"He caught a glimpse of recognition on the bartender's face" is an attractive phrase. "He has an understanding of the proposition" is too complicated if you simply mean "he understands the proposition" but might suggest something slightly weaker. So it all depends on the particular example. – Henry Mar 1 '11 at 7:42
Yeah, I like the glimpse too. It is much more Hammett than a police report. – mplungjan Mar 1 '11 at 10:17
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Your question's more like a starting point for philosophical, linguistic, and other research. No kidding.

You're right about the 'thinginess'. Anyway, humans just do what they can and try some more with language.

Let's start with an issue you may find interesting, I hope: nominalizations in English and many other languages most often allow to leave out the agent, patient, and other participants:

Killing, a sell or a visit doesn't say who, whom, when, where.

That's one reason why excessive nominalization can be used in malicious ways. ('Nominalstil', if you want to adopt a German term)

It's hard to say in general when useful flexible constructions get misleading. Mostly because verbs are so complicated, allowing for many different roles expressed by noun phrases, prepositions, dependent clauses and some more.

Sorry for my alluding overgeneral formulations. There's no short answer to your question for all I know about linguistics. Perhaps I read and heard too much on those issues.

By the way, verbalizations (to hammer, (to mouse as a cat or on a computer) are a totally different beast: the noun names a class of referents which nearly always fulfills a single role. The fun is you can't say which role just by looking at the noun.

share|improve this answer
Yeah, I found it difficult to separate the philosophical and practical implications of the question. On the one hand, I've been told that nominalizations are to be avoided. On the other hand, they often lead to a sort of philosophical confusion—thinking that the understanding is a thing in the mind. – Jon Mar 9 '11 at 21:11

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.