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One of the most common challenges to clarity in legal writing comes from the overuse of nominalizations. These verbs-turned-into-nouns drain the life from sentences and are often a poor choice because

  • nouns cannot carry the action in the sentence in the same way a verb can
  • the sentence usually ends up with a weak verb
  • the passive voice usually pairs up with a nominalization
  • more words are needed to support the weak verb
  • nominalizations almost always cloud the clarity

Getting rid of most of the nominalizations will instantly improve the clarity and power of your text.

You can find nominalizations in all their glory by doing a computer search for words ending in:
ment ion ence and ance ure
ity al ancy and ency ant and ent

Be warned: you won’t recognize all nominalizations by their endings. Some nominalizations look exactly the same as the verb; for example, claim, increase, change, use, approach, request, and study. These you will have to find the old-fashioned way: reading each sentence carefully.

be dependent upon make a recommendation
be in violation of make an argument
bring suit against make an assumption
come to a resolution make an inquiry
conduct an analysis make an objection
conduct an examination perform a review
enter into a settlement place emphasis on
give notice provide an explanation
make a claim take into consideration
make a payment give a statement

But look what happens when you chop out nominalizations:

  1. You save words. Relying on nouns means you need to add other words to prop up the sentence.
  2. Your sentence is almost always clearer, easier to read, and more forceful.
  3. Your reader can see the action, not just things.

Check out these examples and see how we revised.

Sentence Revised
The tribunal came to the decision that the applicant was not eligible for employment benefits. (15 words) The tribunal decided that the applicant was not eligible for employment benefits (11 words)
After a lengthy examination of the facts, the conclusion was reached by the judge that the plaintiff gave a false description of his injury. (24 words) After examining the facts at length, the judge concluded that the plaintiff falsely described his injury. (16 words)
Bonus: getting rid of the nominalization also eliminates the passive voice.
Sentence Revised
His client made a claim that his right to privacy was breached by the disclosure of his financial information by the bank. (22 words) His client claimed the bank breached his right to privacy by disclosing his financial information. (15 words)

What about the word information? Certain nominalizations just don’t need to changed to a verb. You do not need to contort the sentence just to eliminate a nominalization where it is a common word or standard legal term.

Here are other standard legal terms that you often do not need to change from nouns to verbs:

  • litigation
  • action
  • liability
  • discovery

Read and edit these sentences. Decide whether getting rid of nominalizations makes the sentence stronger, and possibly shorter and clearer. Then have a look at how we revised them. Now, go back to your document and find nominalizations you can revise as forceful verbs.

Sentence 1

Nominalizations lead to writers effecting a reduction in the utilization and incidence of verbs.

Word Count:

Nominalizations mean writers use fewer verbs. (6 words)

Sentence 2

The intention of Parliament was expressed in the announcement by the Minister that the interpretation of the statute was to be made broadly by the courts.

Word Count:

The Minister announced that Parliament intended the courts to interpret the statute broadly. (13 words)

Sentence 3

As per your instructions, an agreement by the parties was signed to achieve the implementation of the terms of reference.

Word Count:

As you instructed, the parties agreed to implement the terms of reference. (12 words)

Sentence 4

The assessment of the advisability of the commencement of an appeal must take into account the cost of litigation and the availability of the client's financial resources.

Word Count:

We must take into account litigation costs and the client's financial resources. (17 words) We did not change "litigation" because it is a standard legal term that works well as a noun in this sentence.

Sentence 5

Litigation is not always the best option.

Word Count:

Litigation is not always the best option. (7 words)

Litigation and options are both standard legal terms and do not need to change in this sentence.