Nominalized Verbs

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Nominalization is the process of producing a noun from another part of speech. This post is about nouns formed from verbs.

The least-disguised nominalized verb is the gerund: the present participle form of the verb used as a noun:

Hiking can be arduous.
Writing is not for sissies.
Loitering is not permitted.

Agent Nouns
Many nouns that end in -or are derived from verbs; they denote the actor or agent of the verb from which they come:

actor: one who acts
inventor: one who invents
sculptor: one who sculpts
governor: one who governs
translator: one who translates

Note: The verbs in many -or agent nouns are not immediately recognizable because they correspond to Latin verbs, not English. For example, the rec- in rector is from the past participial stem of regere, “to rule.” In modern usage, a rector is a member of the Anglican clergy who has charge of a parish. Historically, a rector was a ruler or governor with temporal powers.

The suffix -er also forms agent nouns: writer, worker, employer, dancer.

The suffixes -or and -er can also refer to things that perform a particular function: tiller, typewriter, projector.

Recipient Nouns
The suffix -ee is used in legal terminology to indicate the passive party in a legal transaction:

legatee: the person who is to receive a legacy
payee: the person who has the right to be paid

The -ee suffix is an adaptation of the é of certain Anglo-Norman past participles. The suffix has crept from legalese into general use. Some -ee forms do not jar:

employee: one who is employed
evacuee: one who is evacuated
parolee: one who is paroled

Others, however, sound silly:

tutee: one who is tutored
awardee: one who is awarded something
kidnapee: one who is kidnapped

Other Nominalized Verbs Formed with Suffixes
Other suffixes that transform verbs into nouns are: -tion, -sion, -ment, -ence, and -ance:

information, from “to inform”
investigation, from “to investigate”
collision, from “to collide”
agreement, from “to agree”
refusal, from “to refuse”
acceptance, from “to accept”
conference, from “to confer”
failure, from “to fail”

Zero-change Nominalization
Some verbs can be used as nouns without the addition of a suffix:

Murder will out.
Put this money to good use.
Most people dislike change.

Sometimes the verb and noun differ in pronunciation. For example, the noun progress is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable; the verb progress is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.

Use Nominalized Verbs with Care
Several articles in the DWT archives refer to “smothered verbs,” referring to nominalized verbs that contribute to a stodgy style of writing.

Overuse of nominalized verbs, especially those ending in -tion and -ment, contribute to a wordy, stodgy style. For example,

The companies reached an agreement to build in the neighborhood.

Voters had a negative reaction to the new law.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with these sentences, but they can be improved stylistically by rewriting them to eliminate the nominalization and simply use the verb from which it comes:

The companies agreed to build in the neighborhood.

Voters reacted negatively to the new law.

The ability to form nouns from verbs by adding a suffix contributes to the marvelous flexibility of English, but–like all good things–it should be used in moderation.

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3 thoughts on “Nominalized Verbs”

  1. While tutee, awardee and kidnapee may sound silly, at least they conform to the basic Anglo-Norman sense of “ee” – one to whom something has been done. Thinking about what “attendee” or “returnee” might really mean makes my head spin.

  2. “Agent nouns” that end in “er” are derived from Anglo-Saxon-Jute or more recent forms of German. Very often, the German word is identical to the English word, or very close to it. There are hundreds of instances, and I will name some here, with the German form in parentheses if I can remember it:

    baker (Becker), booker (Bucher), carpenter (Zimmerman), driver (Fahrer), farmer (Meyer is an old word for this), hooper, leader (Leiter), nailer (Nagler), preacher (Pfarrer), piper (Pfeiffer), Knight (Ritter = rider, but only on animals, not machines), singer (Sanger), teacher (Lehrer), big businessman** (Unternehmer), undertaker, vender (Kaufmann), wagoner (Wagner), wine maker (Weiner), worker (Arbeiter). Schriftsteller is the word for secretary, and that takes us back when most secretaries were men. The German word for a female secretary is Schriftstellerin. Schriftsteller is not the word for someone like the Secretary of the Treasury, which is the Minister of Finance in many countries. “Geldfuhrer” means the man in charge of the money.
    ** a mover and shaker!
    The verb “fahren” is an irregular verb, and one of its forms is “fuhren”, and that leads us to Fuhrer, which leads us to “leader”, which leads us to Adolf Hitler (yuck!)

    There are additional German or Anglo-Saxon surnames that end in “er”, and I will leave it up to you to figure out the details if you would like to:
    Archer, Cooper, Decker, Esser, Grover (one who raises fruit in orchards), Harper, Lander, Parker, Scribner, Teacher, Teller, Walker, Weller, Wonder, Writer.

    Be careful with these names: “Weiner” is a maker of wine or a grower of grapes, but a “Wiener” is a person from Vienna (spelled Wien in German). Thus “Wiener” is a famous Austrian name. Most English-speaking people cannot keep it straight about “ie” and “ei”, and we even have some people named “Pierce” and some named “Peirce”.

    Writer sounds like an odd name, but an Army sergeant named Lones Writer won several medals in shooting for the U.S. Olympic Team back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. One of his teammates, and a medalist, too, was named “Wigger”, so we had Writer and Wigger on our team.


  3. I have been fighting nominalizations for years. They are the cause of boring and confusing academese, legalese, and businessese. They are the enemy of concise, clear, and direct writing.

    They increase the noun to verb ratio, as well.

    Consider this:
    The increase in the consumption of ink has created a decrease in the utilization of pencils. (6:1 noun to verb ratio)
    People are using fewer pencils because they are using more red ink. (2:1 noun to verb ratio)

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