You’ve heard over and over again, show—not tell. You vaguely understand its meaning: use active, not passive verbs. But passive verbs are not always the culprit, in fact, passive verbs are often symptoms of a bigger threat to your writing: nominalizations.
Nominalizations are words derived from verbs or adjectives. Stuffiness versus the verb stuffy, conclusion vs. concluded, expectations vs. expect, solution vs. solved, confusion vs. confused, and so on and on….
NO: There was an intolerable stuffiness in the room.
YES: The room was intolerably stuffy.
NO: It was our expectations that we would be compensated for our submissions.
YES: We expected to be compensated for our submission.
NO: After years of planting, his conclusion was that money does not grow on trees.
YES: After years of planting, he concluded that money does not grow on trees.
NO: His work gives us an analysis of the issue and offers a solution.
YES: His work analyzes and solves the issue.
Nominalizations make sentences difficult to follow, unclear, and wordy. Readers will engage only if you offer them vivid mental images—and verbs are far more vivid than nouns. See the difference in the sentences below:
NO: Officer Bumpkin was taking a collection of samples at the victim’s house while the interrogation of the suspect happened outside.
YES: Officer Bumpkin collected samples at the victim’s house while outside another officer pummeled the suspect with questions.
We see what actually happens in that second sentence…because it shows, not tells. Make your verbs work for you. Pummeled does here what the verb “happened” a choice made because of the nominalization of interrogate, could never do: engage the reader with a clear, vivid picture.
Nominalizations often hide within phrases. Below, the nominal phrase is in bold, and its more vivid replacement in italics:
NO: The scientist conducted a careful examination of the contents of the petri dish.
YES: The scientist scrutinized the petri dish’s contents.
NO: The unexpected package at her front door caused confusion for the old lady.
YES: The unexpected package at her front door baffled the old lady.
NO: The jack-knifed truck caused significant delay of rush hour traffic.
YES: The jack-knifed truck paralyzed rush hour traffic.
NO: The political climate created a drop in the morale of youth.
YES: The political climate demoralized the youth.
Are there occasions to use nominalizations? Certainly. Perhaps you want to downplay something a bit controversial:
This morning, she will be executed, might be better stated with the nominalization “execution.” Her execution will be this morning… nominalizations take the emphasis away from the action, in this case, intentionally.
Sometimes, the nominalization puts a better emphasis on the meaning of a sentence. Here, the nominalization of tax, taxation, is the better choice; it ends the sentence with a nice emphasis.
Citizens revolted against being taxed.
Citizens revolted against taxation.
Take to heart Joseph Williams’s principle, your writing will stay active and you’ll avoid nominalizations…you’ll be showing, not telling: “Try to state who’s doing what in the subject of your sentence, and try to state what the who is doing in your verb. . . . Get that straight, and the rest of the sentence begins to fall into place” (Style, 1st ed., p. 8)