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Wednesday, December 20th, 2017 technology  research  practice

A Research Tip

  • Research & Writing

Nouns can be used in ways that tire the reader. Here are some things to watch for.

Noun chains
Richard Wydick, author of the excellent Plain English for Lawyers (5th ed, 2005), observes that long chains of nouns used as adjectives don’t make for vigorous prose.

As Wydick puts it, ‘noun chains create noun chain reader strangulation problems’. (See GWWT 42 for the contrasting German approach, which is fine with noun-accumulation.)

Writers of headlines in a certain kind of newspaper love noun chains: ZIKA VIRUS HEALTH CRISIS WARNINGNAZI MYSTERY GOLD TRAIN DISCOVERYDEATH CRASH POLICE OFFICER RELEASEHOLLYWOOD STARLET DRUG SCANDAL SHOCKER.

So (perhaps oddly) do drafters of legislation and other bureaucrats: a glance at federal regulations beginning with A yields (among other gems) the Animals of the Sub-family Bovinae and their Products Importation Prohibition Regulations and the Alberta Sex Offender Information Registration Regulations.

This is OK in the interests of concision on the front page or in a legislative table, but in other kinds of writing the effect is deadening – or downright confusing. Example: business process outsourcing strategy.

Remove some nouns, insert some verbs, make a sentence not a verbal car-crash.

Noun phrases (aka nominalisations)
Here, noun combines with verb (and some other stuff), in order to make what could usually be a straightforward verb. Another way to describe it is with the awful noun nominalisation (making a noun out of something else, basically).

Examples (with their preferable, simple verb alternatives in parenthesis):

  • make a recommendation (recommend)
  • provide assistance to (help or assist)
  • make a decision (decide)
  • provide advice to  (advise)
  • this is to acknowledge receipt of (we received)

Etc., etc. – you get the drift. The problem with these constructions is that they make your sentences longer, flabbier, less direct. Surely you’d rather be concise, toned and vigorous (in your prose, at the very least)?

Weak verbs from nouns
Another tendency of dull legal prose is to use verbs that are derived from nouns (like nominalise).

Other examples: facilitate, operationalise, utilise. Why not the simpler (and more lively) help, launch and use?

Weak nouns from verbs
Please avoid the temptation to turn verbs into nouns, especially when there are perfectly serviceable nouns already. Examples (with their better, existing nouns): ask (request); spend (expenditure, cost), value-add (benefit, advantage).

Next up: miscellaneous little things that annoy me, part 3

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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