Write science better. Avoid nominalizations.
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
When writing academic papers, authors often believe they are expected to write in a formal way, especially, if it involves science writing. As a result, they tend to write text that is difficult to read and understand. The aim of science writing is to express, not to impress. Science demands facts. Therefore, science writing should be clear and direct.
Nominalizations often hinder smooth reading. They are nouns that are created from adjectives or verbs. Some common examples of nominalization used in science writing are illustrated in the figure.
Style guides suggest the following method as a step to improve readability and understanding:
Whenever possible, keep the ‘doer’ or ‘performer’ of an action as the subject of the sentence and the main or significant ‘action’ as a verb.
Here are some examples of how you can replace nominalizations and enhance the smooth reading of the sentence.
A comparison was made between groups A and B.
Replace with: Groups A and B were compared.
We conducted a review of the literature.
Replace with: We reviewed the literature.
A need exists for a study with a larger sample size.
Replace with: A study with a larger sample size is needed.
The patient had a complaint of blurring of vision.
Replace with: The patient complained of blurring of vision.
Our belief is that…
Replace with: We believe that…
Nominalization can mask the main verb of the sentence making it difficult to understand the sentence, especially when sentences are long.
However, not all nominalizations are redundant. Some may be necessary. For example, “The treatment was started.” The word ‘treatment’ is a nominalization of the verb ‘treat’. However, in this example, the key verb is “started’. “Treatment” is the subject that answers what was started.
As Michele Arduengo points out, “Bringing the action of your sentences out into the open can make your science writing more engaging for your readers, and engaged readers are more likely to remember what they read and even return for more.”
Though all nominalizations may not be bad, look at them with suspicion. When you edit your text, check if the action is shown in your main verb. If not, consider rephrasing the sentence.
Read more at:
1. Arduengo M. Finding the action in your writing: Avoiding nominalisation. Medical Writing. 2017. 26(1):12-13.