Nominalization in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Hilary Janks et al., Doing Critical Literacy: Texts and Activities for Students and Teachers (Routledge, 2013). (Getty Images)

In English grammar, nominalization is a type of word formation in which a verb or an adjective (or other part of speech) is used as (or transformed into) a noun. Verb: nominalize. Also called nouning.

In transformational grammar, nominalization refers to the derivation of a noun phrase from an underlying clause. In this sense, an "example of nominalization is the the destruction of the city, where the noun destruction corresponds to the main verb of a clause and the city to its object" (Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar, 2006).

Examples and Observations

  • "English is truly impressive . . . in the way it lets you construct nouns from verbs, adjectives, and other nouns; blogger and blogosphere are examples. All you have to do is add one of an assortment of suffixes: -acy (democracy), -age (patronage), -al (refusal), -ama (panorama), -ana (Americana), -ance (variance), -ant (deodorant), -dom (freedom), -edge (knowledge), -ee (lessee), -eer (engineer), -er (painter), -ery (slavery), -ese (Lebanese), -ess (laundress), -ette (launderette), -fest (lovefest), -ful (basketful), -hood (motherhood), -iac (maniac), -ian (Italian), -ie or -y (foodie, smoothy), -ion (tension, operation), -ism (progressivism), -ist (idealist), -ite (Israelite), -itude (decripitude), -ity (stupidity), -ium (tedium), -let (leaflet), -ling (earthling), -man or -woman (Frenchman), -mania (Beatlemania), -ment (government), -ness (happiness), -o (weirdo), -or (vendor), -ship (stewardship), -th (length), and -tude (gratitude). . . .
    "At the present moment, everybody seems to be going a bit nuts with noun creation. Journalists and bloggers seem to believe that a sign of being ironic and hip is to coin nouns with such suffixes as -fest (Google 'baconfest' and behold what you find), -athon, -head (Deadhead, Parrothead, gearhead), -oid, -orama, and -palooza."
    (Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway, 2007)
  • Nominalization in Scientific and Technical Writing
    "The forces which operate to encourage nominalization are understandable. Dealing continually in concepts, scientific and technical writers tend to isolate activities such as 'experimenting,' 'measuring,' and 'analysing' as abstract conceptual units in their minds. They are also pushed towards passive constructions, both by tradition and by their own desire to step aside and allow their work to speak for itself. These forces produce characteristic constructions such as:
    A similar experiment was carried out using the material . . .
    'Sigma' preparation was carried out as described . . .
    So common has 'carried out' become as a general purpose verb that it is a recognized marker of 'scientific' reporting, and television news bulletins commonly adopt the construction when reporting scientific work. . . .
    "Once recognized, nominalization is easy to correct. Whenever you see general-purpose verbs such as 'carry out,' 'perform,' 'undertake,' or 'conduct' look for the word which names the action. Turning the name of the activity back into a verb (preferably active) will undo the nominalization, and make the sentence more direct and easier to read."
    (Christopher Turk and Alfred John Kirkman, Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical, and Business Communication, 2nd ed. Chapman & Hall, 1989)
  • 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. . . .
    "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."
    (Henry Hitchings, "The Dark Side of Verbs-as-Nouns." The New York Times, April 5, 2013)
  • Types of Nominalization
    - "Nominalization types differ according to the level of organization at which the nominalization takes place (see also Langacker 1991). . . . [T]hree types of nominalizations can be distinguished: nominalizations at the level of the word (e.g. teacher, Sam's washing of the windows), nominalizations which nominalize a structure that lies in between a verb and a full clause (e.g. Sam's washing the windows) and, finally, nominalizations consisting of full clauses (e.g. that Sam washed the windows). The latter two types deviate from the 'normal' rank scale of units in that they represent nominals or phrases which consist of clausal or clause-like structures. They have therefore been regarded as problematic, and it has even be claimed that that-structures are not nominalizations (e.g., Dik 1997; McGregor 1997)."
    (Liesbet Heyvaert, A Cognitive-Functional Approach to Nominalization in English. Mouton de Gruyter, 2003)
    - "Nominalizations properly refer to third-order entities, e.g. 'Cooking involves irreversible chemical changes,' in which cooking refers to the process as a generic type, 'abstracted' from a particular token instance at a specific time. A second kind of nominalization involves reference to second-order entities. Here reference is to particular countable tokens of processes, e.g. 'The cooking took five hours.' The third kind of nominalization has been called improper (Vendler 1968). This refers to first-order entities, things with physical substance and often extended in space, e.g. 'I like John's cooking,' which refers to the food which results from the cooking, (the RESULT OF ACTION AS ACTION metonymy)."
    (Andrew Goatly, Washing the Brain: Metaphor and Hidden Ideology. John Benjamins, 2007)​

    Alternate Spellings: nominalisation (UK)

    Other Grammatical Resources