Nominalization and Conversion

By Mark Nichol

Every field of endeavor has its vocabulary, and the business world, for better or worse, has contributed significantly to the English language with jargon—an insider language that often obfuscates when it should clarify and complicates when it should simplify. This post discusses two categories of such word adaptation.

Nominalization is morphological change though suffixation—the creation of a noun by attaching a suffix to an existing noun or another part of speech. For example, pomposity derives from pompous, corporatism comes from corporate, and humanization results from nominalization of humanize (and, of course, nominalization is itself a nominalization of nominal, which simply means “pertaining to a name or naming,” though it often has a sense of “in name only”).

This neologistic strategy is not inherently inadvisable; it is, after all, how we label concepts that help us understand the world. But writers can get carried away, piling up nominalizations into a formidable heap of sesquipedalian pedantry. When you find yourself collecting such constructions, aid comprehension by breaking the discussion down into more conversational prose—describe with a phrase what one word can do more concisely but not necessarily more coherently.

The second category, conversion (also called zero derivation), sometimes takes this disassembly too far in the opposite direction. Here, one part of speech is repurposed, without alteration, into another, as when verbs become nouns. Some examples are well worn: Disconnect, for one, has become increasingly ubiquitous since its coinage several decades ago to describe a break or disruption between two entities or parties or between one entity or party and a concept.

But other venerable words have taken on new senses: For example, build, which as a noun has long referred to a person or animal’s size and shape, now also denotes the development of a procedure or a system. Fail has existed for some time as a noun in the phrase “without fail” and in the context of a financial deal, but now it is an everyday truncation of failure. And read, employed for decades to refer to something read or the act of reading or time spent reading, has more recently developed as a casual alternative to analysis or opinion in such comments as “What’s your read on that?”

Meanwhile, a new generation of upstart conversions has entered the lexicon since the passing of the last millennium: Writers refer to an ask, or what is expected or requested of someone. Solution is passé; one now achieves a solve. And the cost of something is often referred to in corporate contexts as the spend.

It’s likely too late for an undo for some of these words, but others may quietly disappear, while those that remain eventually become as unobjectionable as disconnect as a noun. But unless you’re in the thick of the business realm (and perhaps even then), maintain an aversion to conversion.

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11 Responses to “Nominalization and Conversion”

  • venqax

    Sometimes the plain-old dictionary is helpful. I am referring to 3c: trifling, insignificant. In social science, nominal is used that way all the time. You are probably thinking in terms of 5: satisfactory.

    Definition of nominal
    : of, relating to, or being a noun or a word or expression taking a noun construction
    a : of, relating to, or constituting a name
    b : bearing the name of a person
    a : existing or being something in name or form only nominal head of his party
    b : of, being, or relating to a designated or theoretical size that may vary from the actual : approximate the pipe’s nominal size
    c : trifling, insignificant: his involvement was nominal charged only nominal rent
    of a rate of interest
    a : equal to the annual rate of simple interest that would obtain if interest were not compounded when in fact it is compounded and paid for periods of less than a year
    b : equal to the percentage by which a repaid loan exceeds the principal borrowed with no adjustment made for inflation
    : being according to plan : satisfactory everything was nominal during the launch

  • Dale A. Wood

    No, “nominal” does not mean “tiny” or “inconsequential”.
    In technical cases like experimental testing, “nominal” is more likely to mean “very good!”.
    Concerning “a term-of-art in some science or engineering contexts”, containing “sufficient”:
    In mathematics and logic there are the important terms “necessary and sufficient” and “necessary but not sufficient”. I think that the equivalents of these date all the way back to Aristotle, who studied logic and wrote about it like no one else had done before.
    For a list of similar achievers, see Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes, and Pythagoras.

  • venqax

    @DAW: I think “nominal” in the somewhat scientific sense you imply means tiny, inconsequential– which is consistent with the “in name only” meaning. That’s what I would take “the results were nominal” to mean. Also, there is the meaning of nominal as “sufficient” which I think must be a term-of-art in some science or engineering contexts. I don’t know how that meaning gets derived from the original sense of the word.

  • venqax

    I have to agree that “gifted” seems horrendous. It just reeks of illiterate “neologism” though I do sympathize with the distinction bluebird makes. The business world is just an Uruk-hai mud-pod of awful, unneeded terminology. How’s that for imagery? My current mortal enemy is “to effort” as in “We are efforting to get that project done.” How about efforting to speak like a grown-up?

  • thebluebird11

    @Laurie: Not sure “gifted” is so terrible. When I think of the word “give,” it’s no big deal. I can give a cashier a $20 bill, I can give someone a lift, I can give someone something, and I may or may not expect something in return. Gifting is different. Gifting (IMHO) is almost like a bestowal. It clearly is an act of giving someone something out of generosity, and implies no expectation of anything in return. It might even involve some sort of formal ceremony or other way of marking the gift or occasion. At least, that is how I would interpret it and the sense in which I would use it. You could give someone a car, and it is a mundane action, maybe doesn’t mean much to you or to the other person; you might expect them to pay you for it, even a little bit, or for them to be indebted to you in some other way. You might even expect them to return it to you at some point. If you GIFT them a car, that’s it. It’s theirs to do what they want with it, and if they want to run it off a cliff, well…there’s nothing you can do about it. You gifted it to them!

  • Dale A. Wood

    They have gone even further in the jargon.
    The process of normalization has begotten the new process of renormalization, and I suppose that this could be called “renominalization”.
    Somewhere, someone, has probably extended these to quasinominalization, pseudonominalization, antinominalization. and quasirenominalization. Yikes!

  • Dale A. Wood

    “nominal, which simply means ‘pertaining to a name or naming’.” Maybe so, but —
    “nominal” is also a synonym for “normal”, as in “The countdown to the new chemical test is nominal,” or “The countdown to the test firing is nominal.”
    Hence, “nominalization” would be a synonym for “normalization”. Normalization is a bloody important part of any process of measurement, and for any kind of statistical analysis of data.
    For example, when you get the results of a written test like the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, and the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphase Psychological Index), those results have always undergone a vast process of normalization or nominalization.
    If you scored in the 83rd percentile on some part of the test, that is the result of the process of vast normalization.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “read” is the lazy man’s may of saying “reading”, where “your reading” means “your estimate”, “your interpretation”, “the result of your analysis”, or even “your opinion”.
    You threw me with the phrase “social science”, because that limits things far too much.
    For examples, “What is your reading (read) on the new information from the laboratory?”, and “What is your reading (read) on the intelligence collected by the Department of G-2?”, and “What is your reading (read) on the data from the space probe to Pluto?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “We’re across that,” sounds like a variation of “We’re over that,” meaning “We have passed over that barrier,” and “We have crossed that X.” Then you can fill in for X with {desert, jungle, mountain range, ocean, river, swamp, wilderness}, or to make it stronger, “radioactive wasteland”, “Chernobyl”, “Siberian tundra”, “moonscape”.
    I would say “We’re across that!” with a great sense of relief and accomplishment, as in “We’re across that crisis (in our place of business),” or (in our operating room), or (in our intensive care unit).

  • Caitlin

    Re ‘read’ as a noun, in the place of ‘analysis’: I wonder if this came from ‘reading’ (noun), in use in social science as ‘interpretation’, or, informally, ‘take’.

    Re business speak, I can’t stand ‘across’ as in ‘we’re across that’. As Mark points out, a single word does not necessarily convey a meaning better than a longer explanation. It’s supposed to mean something like, I infer, ‘We are aware of that are doing something about it’.

  • Laurie Fite

    I couldn’t help but think of my pet peeve — gifted. We have a perfectly good verb in “to give”. Does the world think that “gifted” is somehow better? It just sounds pretentious to me and wrong!!!

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