When we use the word feminization, we’re using a word that grew from the verb feminize, which means to make things feminine.

When we use the word utilization, we’re using a word that grew—even if we don’t like it—from the verb utilize, which is another way of saying use.

Nominalization basically means creating a noun from an adjective or verb. So, feminization and utilization are nominalizations. It’s like an ization parade.

Here are a few more examples of nominalized words:

(its nominalization)

A nominalized word is bigger than the adjective or verb it starts from. When there are only a few of them in a text, and if they’re familiar, it’s no big deal. When they’re less familiar, however, and there are many of them, they can make a text intimidating to read.

Making sentences harder

Sometimes, nominalizations just make a text heavier to read. Read these three statements:

  • Verification of the intended spouses’ eligibility is the first step.
  • The first step is verification of the intended spouses’ eligibility.
  • The first step is to verify whether the intended spouses are eligible.

All three sentences express the same idea, but the first two are harder for us to process than the third.

This is partly due to the words verification and eligibility:

  1. Even though we understand them, we use them less often than the words verify and eligible. We tend to slow down and reread words that we use less often to be sure we understand the idea well.
  1. They’re also longer to read. This, too, makes our brains work harder:
  1. Next, where nominalizations show up in a sentence also makes a difference:

In our examples they occur in the same grammatical part of the sentence—the noun phrase “verification of the intended spouses’ eligibility”. This makes that part of the sentence more challenging to process.

  1. Last, the first sentence is harder to read than the second one because of where the noun phrase itself is placed:
  • Verification of the intended spouses’ eligibility is the first step.
  • The first step is verification of the intended spouses’ eligibility.

In the first sentence the noun phrase delays the arrival of the main verb is. The longer it takes us to get to the main verb, the harder it is for us to process a sentence’s idea.

If nominalizations can cause so much trouble for readers, why do we use them?

Why they’re used

Nominalizations are sometimes the most efficient way to express a concept. Compare these sentences that express the same idea:

  • Feminism has changed the world.
  • The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes has changed the world. 1

They say the same thing but the first sentence is easier to follow—as long as you know what feminism is.

Some nominalizations, however, just seem to be used because some of us think they sound important. The nouns use and usage are clear enough but some people still like to use the words utilize and utilization, which mean the same thing.

How to handle them

So, when we’re reading, what can we do to make sentences that use nominalizations easier to understand? Here are two approaches:

  1. Try to replace these big nouns with their more familiar adjectives or verbs by rearranging the sentence a bit:
  • Disruption of Lin triggers activation of the alarm.
  • When Lin gets disrupted the alarm is activated.
  1. Find the sentence’s main verb and then go back and focus on understanding each part of the sentence that contains a nominalization:
  • Equalization of the pressure between the two chambers is assured by automated regulation of the quick release valve.

After finding the main verb, we can break the sentence down into chunks of meaning to make it easier to understand:

  • Equalization of the pressure between the two chambers = making the pressure between the two chambers equal
  • is assured by = is made sure by
  • automated regulation of the quick release valve = the quick release valve that is automatically regulated

When we put the pieces back together, we get something like this:

  • The pressure between the two chambers is made equal by a quick release valve that is regulated automatically.

Useful tip

When they find a sentence difficult to understand, effective readers break it down into chunks. It helps them separate the clear parts from the unclear parts and then focus on the unclear parts without being distracted by the rest of the sentence.

Useful link

Photo credit: "Large Words" by soukup is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .