Friday, May 09, 2008

When verbs become nouns

Lots of legal writing contains nouns that could have been verbs. These nouns wanted to be verbs--they really did. But lawyerly habits and the default patterns of legal writing made these verbs into nouns, and only you can put them back.

Nouns that wanted to be verbs go by many names: nominalizations, hidden verbs, buried verbs. I've even heard them called smothered verbs. What you call them is not important. What is important is that you learn to recognize when you've got nouns that could be verbs and train yourself to return them to their preferred state.

For example, this sentence contains two nouns that wanted to be verbs:
  • My expectation was that counsel would make an objection.
If we return these nouns to their verb forms, the sentence improves:
  • I expected counsel to object.
This example shows three benefits of using verbs in place of nouns.

By using verbs instead of nouns, you save words: the example went from nine words to five. You save words because using the noun form requires you to add other words to help the noun. When you use the verb form, you can cut the helpers, and that's fine because the helpers usually add little meaning,

By using verbs instead of nouns, you invigorate the text: the verbs in the rewrite are expect and object, which are forceful and strong, where before they had been was and would make, which are bland.

By using verbs instead of nouns, you focus on actions instead of on things or on status; this moves the writing along.

Of course, not all nominalizations are bad. Sometimes they're necessary. But all legal writing would be shorter, more vigorous, and more active if we would let many of our nouns be verbs. And you don't have to take my word for it:

“Watch for and replace nouns created from stronger verbs.” Terri LeClercq, Guide to Legal Writing Style 58 (4th ed. 2007).

“Use base verbs, not nominalizations.” Richard Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers 23 (5th ed. 2006).

“Nominalizing is one of the most serious afflictions of legal prose, draining a sentence of vitality.” Tom Goldstein & Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well 129 (2d ed. 2002).

Here are some of the most common nominalizations in legal writing. Think of the verb form you could use instead:

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

Now spot the two nominalizations in this sentence:
  • The defendant made a referral to Emily Graves, a financial planner, so Ms. Graves could provide the plaintiff with advice.
The two nominalizations, along with their helpers, are made a referral and provide . . . advice. By using verbs, we lose the helpers, enliven the text, and focus on actions:
  • The defendant referred the plaintiff to Emily Graves, a financial planner, so Ms. Graves could advise the plaintiff.
So when you write, spot the nouns that could be verbs and, when you can, return them to their livelier form.

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