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LEGAL WRITING STYLE GUIDE (2): NOMINALISATIONS

Two essential keys to good legal writing are that it should be:


· concise, and

· precise.


For some reason, concise and precise legal writing seems to cause problems for many lawyers. It also causes problems for anyone who reads their documents. One feature of legal writing that causes problems is ‘nominalisation’. In this post, we will look at:


· what nominalisation is

· why it causes problems

· how we can avoid nominalisations in our legal writing.


What is nominalisation?

Basically, nominalisation turns verbs (words describing actions, events, and states) into nouns and noun structures. For example, it will turn a verb like ‘to sign’ into a noun form, such as ‘the signing’. Here is an example.


The signing of the document by the directors of the company took place in the office of the managing director.


Nominalisation is usually easy to identify. If a sentence uses the definite article (the), or the indefinite article (a/an) frequently, it is usually a sign of nominalisation. In the example above, the definite article (the) is used six times. Prepositions used frequently in a sentence may also indicate nominalisation.


A more concise and precise form of the above sentence might be:


The company directors signed the document in the managing director’s office.


Why does nominalisation cause problems?

There are several reasons. These include:

· Nominalisation usually turns concrete actions into abstract concepts. This, almost always, reduces precision and clarity.

· Nominalisation usually increases the length of a sentence. Longer sentences can mean they are less precise and may contain more than one ‘idea’.

· Nominalisation can sometimes make it difficult to know what the subject of a sentence really is.


How can we avoid nominalisation in our legal writing?

The first step is to recognise nominalisation when we see it or write it. The next step is to ask, ‘what is the action, event, or state which is actually involved?’ For example, what is the action, state, or event which is being described in the following sentence?


The usage of the warehouse of the seller is for the storage of the goods ready for shipment.


In this sentence, we can see that the noun ‘the usage’ is really unnecessary. The action that the sentence is actually describing is ‘the storage’ – the noun form of the verb ‘to store’. It is often better to simply apply the ‘golden rule’ for English sentences - namely, Subject-Verb-Object - wherever you can. It makes clear who is doing what. The above sentence could therefore be re-worded – with far more precision and concisely, as follows:

The seller stores goods ready for shipment in its warehouse.


Finally, a word of caution…

Like most rules, or guidance, there are exceptions. Sometimes, nominalisation is not only necessary, but expected. This is particularly so in the field of academic legal writing. However, even in academic legal writing, nominalisations can be overused and used unnecessarily. It is always a good idea to ask yourself if you really need to nominalise and, if not, avoid it. Learning to do this is a good skill to have; particularly if you intend to go into legal practice.



© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2020




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