In legal writing, we often overuse nominalizations.
Some legal writing contains nouns that could have been verbs. These nouns wanted to be verbs—they really did. But lawyerly habits and the default patterns of legal writing often tempt us to use the noun form instead.
Nouns that could’ve been verbs are called nominalizations. (That’s a big word, and experts have coined other, catchier names: hidden verbs, buried verbs, zombie nouns.) Here’s what they look like:
- The prosecutor’s expectation was that defense counsel would make an objection.
That sentence contains two nominalizations: expectation and objection. Let’s revise the sentence by turning those nouns back into verbs:
- The prosecutor expected defense counsel to object.
This example shows two benefits of using verbs in place of nouns.
- By using verbs instead of nouns, you save words: this example went from 11 words to 7. Sometimes when you shorten a sentence, you lose some meaning or some key content, but not here. Fixing nominalizations almost always allows you to retain the meaning but use fewer words. That’s concision.
- By using verbs instead of nouns, you invigorate the text: the verbs in the original were was and make. Nothing wrong with those verbs, of course, but they’re not forceful or vigorous. The revision uses stronger verbs: expect and object.
Nominalizations aren’t wrong or grammatically incorrect, but they’re overused in legal writing. As a result, legal-writing experts often single them out for comment:
“Watch for and replace nouns created from stronger verbs.”1
“Use base verbs, not nominalizations.”2
“Nominalizing is one of the most serious afflictions of legal prose, draining a sentence of vitality.”3
“Nominalizations are large and clunky, and they serve only to confuse the reader by weighing down sentences.”4
Here are some of the most common nominalizations in legal writing. Think of the verb form you could use instead:
be in violation of
bring suit against
come to a resolution
conduct an analysis
enter into a settlement
give notice to
make a payment
make a recommendation
make an argument
perform an examination
place emphasis on
provide an explanation
take into consideration
Why do legal writers over-use nominalizations? I have two theories.
First, nominalizations are typically longer, bigger words, and they sound formal. Sometimes we legal writers want to sound formal, serious, or even heavy. Although there’s nothing wrong with sounding formal, a less-formal tone is usually more reader-friendly.
Second, we often think conceptually—we think of things, of nouns. Returning to our first example, if I’m the writer, I’m thinking about an expectation, and the expectation is about an objection. So I naturally end up writing a sentence with the nouns expectation and objection. Again, there’s nothing wrong with thinking of concepts and then writing those concepts down. But on the edit, check for nominalizations and see if you can shorten and invigorate your prose.
Here’s one more example. Spot the two nominalizations in this sentence:
- The insurer had no authorization to make a distinction between existing patients and new patients.
The two nominalizations are authorization and distinction. By using their verb forms instead, we cut the weak verbs had and make, we enliven the text by focusing on actions rather than things, and we shorten it from 15 words to 12:
- The insurer was not authorized to distinguish existing patients from new patients.
So when you edit, look for nominalizations—nouns that could have been verbs—and when you can, return them to their livelier form.
1. Terri LeClercq, Guide to Legal Writing Style 58 (4th ed. 2007).
2. Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers 23 (5th ed. 2006).
3. Tom Goldstein & Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well 129 (2d ed. 2002).
4. Charles N. Insler, Kill Nominalizations, Breathe Life Back into Briefs, 59 No. 10 DRI For Def. 99 (Oct. 2017).