[As readers of ROT will know by now, one of my overriding interests in good writing, I’m a recovering writing teacher, having attempted to inculcate the notion that good writing is an asset to everyone, no matter in what field you endeavor. I’ve taught writing, composition, or English at both the high school level and college, I’ve included an emphasis on clear, simple prose in classes such as theater appreciation and even acting, and I’ve tutored and coached writers and acted as an editor even beyond this blog. Pursuant to that goal, I’m republishing two columns from the New York Times here on a phenomenon that’s become all too visible in recent years. Read what writer Henry Hutchins has said about turning verbs and adjectives into nouns on the Times’ blog, “Opinionator.” The first column appeared on 30 March 2013 at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com.]
“THOSE IRRITATING VERBS-AS-NOUNS”
by Henry Hitchings
“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”
If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.
There are two types of nominalization. Type A involves a morphological change, namely suffixation: the verb “to investigate” produces the noun “investigation,” and “to nominalize” yields “nominalization.”
Type B is known as “zero derivation”—or, more straightforwardly, “conversion.” This is what has taken place in my opening illustrations: a word has been switched from verb into noun (or, in the last two cases, from adjective into noun), without the addition of a suffix.
Plenty of teachers discourage heavy use of the first type of nominalization. Students are urged to turn nouns of this kind back into verbs, as if undoing a conjurer’s temporary hoax. On this principle, “The violence was Ted’s retaliation for years of abuse” is better rendered as “Ted retaliated violently after years of abuse.”
The argument for doing this is that the first version is weaker: dynamic writing makes use of “stronger” verbs. Yet in practice there are times when we may want to phrase a matter in a way that is not so dynamic. Perhaps we feel the need to be tactful or cautious, to avoid emotiveness or the most naked kind of assertion. Type A nominalization can afford us flexibility as we try to structure what we say. It can also help us accentuate the main point we want to get across. Sure, it can be clunky, but sometimes it can be trenchant.
On the whole, it is Type B nominalization that really grates. “How can anybody use ‘sequester’ as a noun?” asks a friend. “The word is ‘sequestration,’ and if you say anything else you should be defenestrated.”
“I’ll look forward to the defenestrate,” I say, and he calls me something I’d sooner not repeat.
Even in the face of such opprobrium, people continue to redeploy verbs as nouns. I am less interested in demonizing this than in thinking about the psychology behind what they are doing.
Why say “solve” rather than “solution”? One answer is that it gives an impression of freshness, by avoiding an everyday word. To some, “I have a solve” will sound jauntier and more pragmatic than “I have a solution.” It’s also more concise and less obviously Latinate (though the root of “solve” is the Latin solvere).
These aren’t necessarily virtues, but they can be. If I speak of “the magician’s reveal” rather than of “the magician’s moment of revelation,” I am evoking the thrill of this sudden unveiling or disclosure. The more traditional version is less immediate.
Using a Type B nominalization may also seem humorous and vivid. Thus, compare “that was an epic fail” (Type B nominalization), “that was an epic failure” (Type A nominalization) and “they failed to an epic degree” (neither).
There are other reasons for favoring nominalizations. They can have a distancing effect. “What is the ask?” is less personal than “What are they asking?” This form of words may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response. It can also turn something amorphous into a discrete conceptual unit, of a kind that is easier to grasp or sounds more specific. Whatever I think of “what is the ask?” it focuses me on what’s at stake.
Some regard unwieldy nominalizations as alarming evidence of the depraved zeitgeist. But the phenomenon itself is hardly new. For instance, “solve” as a noun is found in the 18th century, and the noun “fail” is older than “failure” (which effectively supplanted it).
“Reveal” has been used as a noun since the 16th century. Even in its narrow broadcasting context, as a term for the final revelation at the end of a show, it has been around since the 1950s.
“Ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years—though the way we most often encounter it today, with a modifier (“a big ask”), is a 1980s development.
It is easy to decry nominalization. I don’t feel that a writer is doing me any favors when he expresses himself thus: “The successful implementation of the scheme was a validation of the exertions involved in its conception.” There are crisper ways to say this. And yes, while we’re about it, I don’t actually care for “Do you have a solve?”
Still, it is simplistic to have a blanket policy of avoiding and condemning nominalizations. Even when critics couch their antipathy in a language of clinical reasonableness, they are expressing an aesthetic judgment.
Aesthetics will always play a part in the decisions we make about how to express ourselves—and in our assessment of other people’s expression—but sometimes we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.
[A version of this article appeared in print on Sunday, 31 March 2013, in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.
[By the way, for those who didn’t really catch it, defenestration, an odd word in any case, means simply “the act of throwing someone or something out a window,” as in the historical Defenestration of Prague which launched the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.]
* * * *
“THE DARK SIDE OF VERBS-AS-NOUNS”
by Henry Hitchings
[In his follow-up column on “Opinionator,” on Friday, 5 April 2013, Hitchings continues his discussion of nominalization.]
In my previous essay, I wrote about nominalization—the deployment as nouns of words we mostly expect to encounter as verbs or adjectives. Aware of many people’s tendency to vilify this kind of usage, I speculated about the psychology behind it. I was interested in thinking about why someone might prefer “Do you have a solve for this problem?” to “Can you solve this problem?”
Like many of the readers who commented, I find that some nominalizations are useful and others are jarring. I can accept that language changes (and has to change) without necessarily cherishing all manifestations of that change. I don’t shudder when I see or hear “This year’s spend is excessive” and “Her book was a good read,” even though I can think of other, perhaps more elegant ways of saying these things. On the other hand, “There is no undo for that” strikes me as infelicitous, and I am still not completely comfortable with the use of the noun “disconnect” as a synonym for “disparity” or “discrepancy”—although it has been around since the 1980s.
In some cases a nominalization is the specialist vocabulary of a particular profession or community: it has connotations of expertise and—less often—of an insider’s self-regard. For instance, people who work in software talk about the “build,” and I recently heard a real estate agent speak of creating a “seduce” for property. When these terms of art gain wider currency, it is largely because nonspecialists are eager to seem conversant with the ins and outs of an esoteric subject. Sometimes we adopt such terms in a jocular or satirical spirit—but end up using them without a whiff of irony.
In the last couple of decades, many condensed forms of expression have achieved currency thanks to the spread of electronic communication: when we bash out e-mails and text messages, we feel the need for speed. Several readers made this point. Nominalizations allow us to pack the information in our sentences more densely. This urgency comes in other guises: nouns get verbed as often as verbs get nouned. (I had to go and lie down after writing that.)
What I didn’t discuss in my first post was the dark side of nominalization. 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. That may sound like a virtue, but it’s really a way of repudiating ambiguity and complexity.
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.
I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.
At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency—as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.
Compared with “What is the ask?” the question “What’s the take-away from today’s lecture?” may look harmless. Yet it minimizes audience members’ sense of their responsibility to absorb the lecture’s lessons. “What should I take away from today’s lecture?” is a question that betrays a cramped and probably exam-focused understanding of what it means to learn. But “What’s the take-away?” seems to represent education as a product rather than a practice. It invites an answer that’s a sound bite, a Styrofoam-sheathed portion of spice, a handy little package to be slavishly reproduced.
Such phrasing also curtails the lecturer’s role, making him or her not so much a source of ideas and a repository of intellectual trust as a purveyor of data packets. This may be an unhappy accident, or it may be strategic – perhaps a disavowal of the very notion that education is personal.
Nominalizations aren’t intrinsically either good or bad. Yet, used profusely, they strip the humanity out of what we write and say. They can also be furtively political. Their boosters see them as marvels of concision, but one person’s idea of streamlining is another’s idea of a specious and ethically doubtful simplicity.
[Henry Hitchings is a British author, reviewer, and critic with a particular focus on language and cultural history. He’s the theatre critic for the London Evening Standard, and has also written for the Financial Times, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement. The author of five books exploring language and culture, his most recent is Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013). Hitchings’s second book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.]