Writing with #mdxImpact: Nominalisation

Admit it.

You’ve done it.

Many times, in fact.

You’ve looked at the page and taken a perfectly good action and changed it into a noun for the purpose of making a sentence longer, more complicated, and more ponderous. You’ve not done it to confuse; you’ve not done it to hinder clarity. You’ve done it because it’s the done thing. You’ve done it because the papers you’ve cited do it. You’ve done it because everyone does it. I know, I understand, because I’ve done it, too. However, that’s not a good enough reason for us to keep doing it.

Here’s the good news: we can fix it. The acceptance of the problem is the first step.

In this, the second installment of the “Writing Your #mdxImpact” series, we are taking a look at nominalisation.


Nominalisation is the act of changing a verb into a noun. It isn’t all bad. Nominalisation is useful in constructing an objective voice; it pairs well with the passive voice (soon to be seen in the “writing with #mdxImpact” series) to create a sense of the impersonal academic merely observing data, as if actions happen spontaneously and without intervention. Nominalisation helps to elide the personal voice and confer authority where there is insufficient evidence. Nominalisation is popular in academic writing, in part because it is self-perpetuating: academics imitate other academics in their writing styles.

In terms of impact, nominalisation overly complicates language. It is an unfortunate truth that academic language is often less clearly constructed in term of action. Where impact is about action, nominalisation shifts the focus to objects. So, instead of “I read the paper and found it useful,” I might write “My reading of the paper was a discovery of its usefulness.” This, in turn, then implies passivity on the part of the writer, as the objects (nouns) are doing all of the heavy lifting.

So, let’s make a pact: we shall let verbs be verbs. I am going to eat dinner; I am not going to allow the ingestion of dinner to be something that happens to me. I will not have a perambulation, I will walk!


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