How not to communicate – ‘nominalisations’ (with examples)

George_Orwell_press_photoThe term ‘nominalisation’ in NLP refers to words describing activities or processes (something we do) but that we talk about as if they are things. ‘Nominalising’ an activity distorts our thinking about it, because it obscures what the activity actually is, and allows us to talk about the nominalisation as if it has a separate existence from us, instead of being something we do. Examples would be ‘discipline’ or ‘persistence’ – or, of course, the word ‘nominalisation’ itself, which actually refers to the process of turning verbs into nouns.

‘Discipline’ isn’t a thing in itself. You can’t see it, it has no location, weight or size, and (as the standard NLP saying goes) you can’t put it in a wheelbarrow.

For example, if someone says “I need more discipline”, it sounds like this discipline is a thing that might just happen along, or that he either has or he hasn’t, whereas in fact it’s what he does that determines whether we think he has ‘discipline’ or not.

Nominalisations turn actions into abstract concepts. This is useful to aid abstract reasoning, although it has the drawback that because we can’t point to real-world objects or actions to define a nominalisation, it can mean different things to different people.

You can usually recognise nominalisations because (mostly, although there are exceptions like ‘love’) they are three or four syllable words, derived from Greek or Latin. Because they don’t evoke any sensory referents in the mind of the listener or reader, they make for dull listening or reading – it’s “a significant impact impressed itself upon his physiognomy” versus “she slapped him in the face”. And they lend themselves to the passive voice, so they’ll drive up the ‘fog index‘ if you rely on them too heavily.

Here’s a beautiful example of the overuse of nominalisations which I found in Private Eye’s ‘Pseuds Corporate’ section in 2004:

Sharpening efficiency 

We will deliver a systematic and sustained programme of efficiency and measures for improved effectiveness, translated into sustained local delivery to ensure the delivery of more stretching centrally derived targets. There will be more emphasis on local ownership and accountability for the identification and delivery of efficiencies.

Communication and influencing 

We will use clear and focused communications to support our priorities, using the most appropriate communications and influencing methods.

Obviously they hadn’t got started on the second bit yet.

What effect did reading that have on you?

I found it as good an example of how nominalisations send people into trance and make business communications really tedious as you could wish for. If you want to quote this as an example of overuse of nominalisations, you will find it particularly effective if you read it out slowly, in a monotonous voice.

The example came from the UK Environment Agency’s web site. On searching for it now, the only reference I could find to ‘sharpening efficiency’ was in a report where they had pretty much replaced the example above with this:

Sharpening efficiency

Our long-term aim: We will get the most for the environment from all of the resources available to us. Our staff will find better ways of doing things, embracing new ideas from inside and outside the organisation. We will change our ways of working to reduce costs for us and for our customers, whilst maintaining or improving our levels of service.

Quite a bit clearer, I think you’ll agree.

If you’re interested in communicating clearly (and it can be an effort – I nearly wrote ‘in clear communication’ there), it’s also worth reading George Orwell’s masterly essay Politics and the English Language. In fact I can’t resist quoting Orwell’s translation of Ecclesiastes 9:11—

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

—into “modern English of the worst sort,”

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

I’m assuming you’ve all got Orwell’s essays on your shelf already – if not, get them at once!