Thursday, April 04, 2013

Down With Zero Derivation!

Whenever this blogger thinks he can claim a get, that's the evil of nominalization at its worst. Get real, blogger! You've found some good writing for the latest blog-post, get it? If this is (fair & balanced) anti-nominalization, so be it.

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Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns
By Henry Hitchings

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“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.

There are two types of nominalization. Type A involves a morphological change, namely suffixation: the verb “to investigate” produces the noun “investigation,” and “to nominalize” yields “nominalization.”

Type B is known as “zero derivation” — or, more straightforwardly, “conversion.” This is what has taken place in my opening illustrations: a word has been switched from verb into noun (or, in the last two cases, from adjective into noun), without the addition of a suffix.

Plenty of teachers discourage heavy use of the first type of nominalization. Students are urged to turn nouns of this kind back into verbs, as if undoing a conjurer’s temporary hoax. On this principle, “The violence was Ted’s retaliation for years of abuse” is better rendered as “Ted retaliated violently after years of abuse.”

The argument for doing this is that the first version is weaker: dynamic writing makes use of “stronger” verbs. Yet in practice there are times when we may want to phrase a matter in a way that is not so dynamic. Perhaps we feel the need to be tactful or cautious, to avoid emotiveness or the most naked kind of assertion. Type A nominalization can afford us flexibility as we try to structure what we say. It can also help us accentuate the main point we want to get across. Sure, it can be clunky, but sometimes it can be trenchant.

On the whole, it is Type B nominalization that really grates. “How can anybody use ‘sequester’ as a noun?” asks a friend. “The word is ‘sequestration,’ and if you say anything else you should be defenestrated.”

“I’ll look forward to the defenestrate,” I say, and he calls me something I’d sooner not repeat.

Even in the face of such opprobrium, people continue to redeploy verbs as nouns. I am less interested in demonizing this than in thinking about the psychology behind what they are doing.

Why say “solve” rather than “solution”? One answer is that it gives an impression of freshness, by avoiding an everyday word. To some, “I have a solve” will sound jauntier and more pragmatic than “I have a solution.” It’s also more concise and less obviously Latinate (though the root of “solve” is the Latin solvare.

These aren’t necessarily virtues, but they can be. If I speak of “the magician’s reveal” rather than of “the magician’s moment of revelation,” I am evoking the thrill of this sudden unveiling or disclosure. The more traditional version is less immediate.

Using a Type B nominalization may also seem humorous and vivid. Thus, compare “that was an epic fail” (Type B nominalization), “that was an epic failure” (Type A nominalization) and “they failed to an epic degree” (neither).

There are other reasons for favoring nominalizations. They can have a distancing effect. “What is the ask?” is less personal than “What are they asking?” This form of words may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response. It can also turn something amorphous into a discrete conceptual unit, of a kind that is easier to grasp or sounds more specific. Whatever I think of “what is the ask?” it focuses me on what’s at stake.

Some regard unwieldy nominalizations as alarming evidence of the depraved zeitgeist. But the phenomenon itself is hardly new. For instance, “solve” as a noun is found in the 18th century, and the noun “fail” is older than “failure” (which effectively supplanted it).

“Reveal” has been used as a noun since the 16th century. Even in its narrow broadcasting context, as a term for the final revelation at the end of a show, it has been around since the 1950s.

“Ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years — though the way we most often encounter it today, with a modifier (“a big ask”), is a 1980s development

It is easy to decry nominalization. I don’t feel that a writer is doing me any favors when he expresses himself thus: “The successful implementation of the scheme was a validation of the exertions involved in its conception.” There are crisper ways to say this. And yes, while we’re about it, I don’t actually care for “Do you have a solve?”

Still, it is simplistic to have a blanket policy of avoiding and condemning nominalizations. Even when critics couch their antipathy in a language of clinical reasonableness, they are expressing an aesthetic judgment.

Aesthetics will always play a part in the decisions we make about how to express ourselves — and in our assessment of other people’s expression — but sometimes we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic. Ω

[Henry Hitchings is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in narrative non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history. The second of his four books, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (2008), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His other books include Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary (2005), Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read (2008), The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (2011), and Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013). Hitchings graduated from Eton College (BA), Christ Church, Oxford (MA), and University College London (PhD).]

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