Writing manuals will often talk about something called nominalization, the habit we have of too often preferring nouns to verbs as we construct sentences. It’s a prevalent phenomenon in modern writing, and why we do it has fascinating philosophical implications, because it points to the idea that we seem to perceive ourselves more and more to be living amidst a world of things rather than participating in a world of action. In an earlier post (Life Moves), I tried to show how one writer brought vigor and force to a descriptive passage by depicting what something is doing rather than what it is. The subject is important, and merits a few more words.
The term nominalization means, broadly, making nouns from verbs and adjectives, and as is so often the case, it’s a fine thing in its rightful place. Discursive prose is an instrument of reason, it’s how we make rational sense of the world we find ourselves in, and indeed the first principle of logic recognizes that the world is made up of things. But when we go so far as to regularly write sentences like My hope is that we can come to an agreement when we really mean simply I hope we can agree, things have taken a turn for the worse. The problem lies not in the grammar (both sentences are faultless) but in the rhetoric, the manner in which I am positioning an idea for the reader to observe.
In the sentence My hope is that we can come to an agreement, the subject of the main clause is my hope, and the thing called hope is apparently what I want you, the reader, to think about above all else; if not, I would not have placed that noun as the main subject. In doing that, however, I have transferred the action of hoping to its noun hope, putting myself in a position where I can only next say what that hope is; I am then only implying that I am hoping, not boldly asserting it. I am not, in other words, standing up with the courage of my convictions and speaking my mind directly; I’m sidling and wending my way timidly around, gently suggesting what perhaps I fear actually saying outright. And that is why this kind of sentence construction, if it becomes a habit, is so infuriating: it’s diffident and cautious and over-careful—all respectable things in their proper place, but determinedly out of place when we are writing to engage someone’s attention and say straight up what we believe and mean.
The problem, once again, lies not in the construction itself, but in its frequency. We cannot write English well without this arrangement, but we can choose it so often that we neglect other, stronger patterns. The trigger that fires it off is the verb is (notice there I just employed the construction myself). This verb and its many other forms (among them was, were, has been) predicates a condition or circumstance, the scene in which objects are seen. When used in this way, a noun will follow the verb is, and bring the whole construction into being: My hope is…. We end up bringing the reader’s attention to a situation, not to an agent acting in a situation, and therein lies the weakness we want to avoid.
All this, of course, should not allow loud bulls to roam freely in fragile china shops; caution and care are important in matters subtle. It does point our attention, though, to the indispensable importance of balance. If we revised every sentence we wrote, tying down every noun to its nominally proper role as subject or object, we would not be writing in the natural and forthright voice that is our aim. But if the balance is akilter, as it so often is in modern writing (and particularly in current business writing), then keeping our eye on the is + noun pattern can alert us to make an effective revision.