ELT Concourse: nominalisation
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Concourse 2

Nominalisation in EAP

The title of this guide suggests it is applicable to English for Academic Purposes and, indeed, it is.  However, nominalisation is not confined to EAP so this guide is linked from elsewhere, too.
Many of the examples in the guide are taken from academic materials but the concepts are unchanged, whatever the text type.

names
the naming of things

Nominalisation (n.) is derived from the Latin nomen, also the root of the word noun, meaning name.
Literally, it means the act of giving something a name but in our field it has the more precise meaning of changing the status of a word, phrase or clause to a noun.
Here are some examples:

  • drink (verb) → drink (noun)
    with no change to the word at all, a process of conversion
  • compute (verb) → computer (noun)
    with a suffix [-r]
  • clear (adjective) → clarity (noun) / cleanliness (noun)
    with a change to the morphology / morphology + pronunciation
  • he left (intransitive finite verb phrase) → his departure (genitive + noun)
    making the verb phrase into a noun phrase
  • I discovered the new species ... (transitive finite verb phrase) → the discovery of the new species [by me] (noun phrase post-modified with the of genitive)
  • He broke it and that caused a problem (two coordinated finite verb phrases) → His breaking of it caused a problem (a pre-modified gerund as the subject of a single finite verb phrase)

why

What is nominalisation and why do we do it?

As you see, there are lots of ways that nominalisation occurs in English but the first question is to ask why we should want to do it at all.
As a way to answer this, compare these two sentences:

  1. If you place a particle of sodium in water it produces hydrogen
  2. Placing a particle of sodium in water results in the production of hydrogen

It's easy to see that the former is akin to spoken language and out of place in academic writing whereas the second formulation, which means the same thing, is more appropriate in written academic reports.

Reason 1: Nominalisation achieves formality with the use of noun phrases instead of active verb phrases.
Reason 2: Nominalisation removes the need for verb subjects and avoids the necessity to state who does what to what or whom.  This means that a suitably objective and impersonal note can be struck.

How does it do that?

What has happened in sentence 2. is that both verb forms have been nominalised.
The first by making a gerund, post-modified with an object complement, a genitive and a prepositional phrase and making that whole noun phrase the subject of the verb result in.  The second by simple suffixation to change the verb produce + its object to the noun production + a genitive of description.
If we compare the structures of the two sentences we get:

1 Contingency conjunction + personal subject pronoun + verb + object noun phrase + prepositional phrase + subject pronoun + verb + object noun
If you place a particle of sodium  in water it produces hydrogen
2 Gerund + object noun phrase + prepositional phrase + verb + object noun phrase + genitive + noun
Placing a particle of sodium in water results in the production of hydrogen

A somewhat simpler way of looking at this is:
Sentence 1. consists of two clauses, each with their own active verb forms:
    If + subject (personal) + verb + object and subject + verb + object
Sentence 2. has only one clause with a nominalised subject and a nominalised object:
    Subject (impersonal) + verb + object
Although the structure of sentence 2. is therefore simpler, we have crammed the same information into the noun phrases.  That's what nominalisation does: it moves the information from the verb to a noun.


?

How is nominalisation achieved?

The introduction to this guide contained six examples of the common types of nominalisation in English.  In any EAP programme, we'll want to break the ways down to make sense of them for our learners.  Here's one approach to doing that.

form

Noun formation

  • drink (verb) → drink (noun)
    with no change to the word at all, a process of conversion
  • compute (verb) → computer (noun)
    with a suffix [-r]
  • clear (adjective) → clarity (noun) / cleanliness (noun)
    with a change to the morphology / morphology + pronunciation

These are all examples of word formation.  Making a noun from verbs and adjectives is often quite simple and the guides to word formation and teaching word formation have more in this area.
Here are some examples:

  1. I rectified the problem easily → Rectification was easy
    The number of suffixes which make nouns from verbs is actually quite limited and some are a lot less productive than others.
    The short list is:
    1. -ance / -ence: appearance, allowance, clearance, disturbance, guidance, performance, coalescence, convergence, emergence, existence etc.
      For example:
          We allowed for some errors → Allowance was made for error
    2. -ment: accomplishment, alignment, apportionment, arrangement, commencement, development, endorsement, improvement, measurement, replacement etc.  This is a very productive suffix.
      For example:
          We arranged the interviews → The arrangement of the interviews
    3. -or / -or: actor, regulator, computer, discoverer, receiver etc.  Potentially, -er or -r can be affixed to any verb in English to denote the agent.
      For example:
          Guru discovered ... → The discoverer of ... was Guru
    4. -ant: informant, disinfectant, inhabitant, propellant, pollutant etc.  This suffix is often used in more scholarly settings and for verbs which end -ate such as participate → participant, lubricate → lubricant, penetrate → penetrant etc.
      For example:
          200 people participated in the survey → There were 200 participants in the survey
    5. -ation / -cation / -tion / -sion: satisfaction, justification, investigation, inspection, comprehension, compression etc.  This is another very productive set of suffixes converting states or actions into nouns.
      For example:
          We inspected the results and they showed ... → The inspection of the results showed ...
    6. -al: refusal, dismissal, revival etc.  This suffix converts dynamic verbs, often reporting verbs in EAP, to countable nouns.
      For example:
          Guru dismissed the results → Guru's dismissal of the results
    7. -ing: the classic gerund maker for all verbs in English.  There are no irregular gerunds.
      For example:
          It was difficult to explain the issue → Explaining the issue was difficult
    8. -age: coverage, shrinkage etc.  This is almost completely unproductive in making new nouns.
      For example:
          The questionnaire covered many areas → The questionnaire had wide coverage
  2. The results were very useful → The great usefulness of the results
    Making nouns from adjectives is also common but only two suffixes do the job consistently:
    1. -ness: addictiveness, backwardness, illness, orderliness, usefulness etc.  This is a very productive source of abstract nouns and new ones are coinable.  Words ending in -ful or -less are often converted to nouns with this suffix.
      For example:
          The presentation was very orderly → The good orderliness of the presentation
    2. -ity: elasticity, similarity, adjustability, computability etc.  Adjectives ending -ible or -able are often converted to nouns in this way.
      For example:
          Results were comparable → The comparability of the results

For EAP purposes, we need to focus on what happens to the syntax of a clause when we nominalise by affixation or simple conversion.

  1. In many cases, all that is needed is the insertion of a copular verb to link the noun phrase we have made to an attribute.  For example:
        It was easy to calculate the difference → Calculation of the difference was simple
        It was impossible to estimate the effect → Estimation of the effect was impossible
        Many people participated → Participation was good
  2. The addition of an of descriptive genitive structure is often required.  For example:
        The outcome was similar → The similarity of the outcome
        We investigated the changes → The investigation of the changes
        The people who live in Margate → The inhabitants of Margate
  3. Frequently, we need to find a suitable verb for the noun to act as the subject, with or without the genitive form.  For example:
        The material is elastic so ...→ The elasticity of the material allows ...
        The patient was too ill to travel → The patient's illness prevented travel
        We discovered that ... → The discovery indicated that ...
adjust

Adjusting the syntax

We saw above that we often have to make quite drastic adjustments to the syntax to nominalise and adopt an appropriately academic style.  Here are the examples again:

  • he left (intransitive finite verb phrase) → his departure (genitive + noun)
    making the verb phrase into a noun phrase
  • I discovered the new species ... (transitive finite verb phrase) → the discovery of the new species [by me] (noun phrase post-modified with the of genitive)
  • He broke it and that caused a problem (two coordinated finite verb phrases) → His breaking of it caused a problem (a pre-modified gerund as the subject of a single finite verb phrase)

Essentially, as we saw, this means pre- and post-modifying subject and object noun phrases and linking them with an appropriate verb.  In this way, we can change, for example:
    We carefully investigated in the laboratory exactly what the reaction produced and found that it was very toxic
which contains four verbs (investigated, produced, found, was)
to
    A careful laboratory investigation of the exact nature of the product of the reaction revealed great toxicity
which contains only one verb, revealed, with the rest of the information embedded in noun phrases.

The key here is complex nominalisation of the original informal verb phrases.  It works like this:
pre-modification noun post-modification verb pre-modification noun
A careful laboratory investigation of the exact nature of the product of the reaction revealed great toxicity

The core of the sentence is a simple Subject–Verb–Object formula: An investigation revealed toxicity
and that is, in fact, syntactically far simpler than the informal expression of the same idea.  Realising this is a key reading skill.


teaching

Teaching nominalisation

This is not a simple area to learn and needs to be taken piecemeal.
The easiest place to start is the formation of nouns from adjectives and verbs.

aware

Awareness raising and noticing

To introduce the area, a simple matching exercise can be used.  Something like this:

Compare the sentences on the left with those on the right.
What's the difference?
Which one has the most verbs?
Which one would you put in an essay?
I looked at the way they classified these events An investigation of classification methodology was conducted 
We provide medium-range forecasts which are long enough in advance so we can help farmers to do things to cope with what we say the weather will be like Medium-range weather forecasts with a validity period that enables farmers to organize and carry out appropriate operations to cope with the forecasted weather are provided
My results show that the problem is two-fold Results reveal a two-fold problem

This alerts people to two things:

  1. That verbs may be nominalised
  2. That the resultant style is more appropriate

This is just an example.  Learners will need lots of practice to notice all the significant differences.

reading

Comprehension exercises

Unpacking some especially complex nominalisations is a half-way house to the ability to use them and also, of course, a useful reading skill in itself.
Presenting learners with exercises like this can help:

Identify the main subject, verb and object in these sentences as in the example.
Then identify what comes before and after each part of the sentence.
The combined and collated results of the survey carried out between the two dates present interesting and informative data on the ways in which opinions alter over time Core: The results ... present ... data
Modification:
before the subject: combined and collated
after the subject: of the survey carried out between the two dates
before the object: interesting and informative
after the object: on the ways in which opinions alter over time
The final experiment in a series of six similar trials did not show identifiable significant differences from the previous five occasions Core:
Modification:

Learners need quite a lot of practice in spotting nominalisations and deciding which parts of the pre- and post-modification they can safely ignore.

writing

Productive exercises

For productive purposes, once the learners are aware of what needs to happen, the same kind of exercise can be done but this time the learners have to make the adjustments rather than simply identify what they are.
Here's one for adjective to noun formation:

Change the adjectives on the left to make sentences using nouns on the right as in the example. 
The result was impressive and showed ... The impressiveness of the result showed ...
The results are very similar and reveal that ...   
The action is very useful and helps to ...  

and here's another for making syntactical changes

Change the sentences on the left to make sentences using nouns on the right as in the example. 
The result impressed us and showed that ... The impressiveness of the result showed ...
Guru assumes that ...  
We applied the same idea to the next set  

and so on.
Adjustments will be made for level, of course, and a good deal of practice will be needed.



Related guides
word formation the general guide to the area
teaching word formation the obvious next step
modification for a general guide to modification
pre-modification for two guides concerned with modifying nouns
post-modification
morphology for a more general and theoretical guide
EAP index for links to other guides in the area