Summarising a detailed process

Often nominalisations aren’t just a straightforward grammatical conversion from a verb to a noun (or adjective to a noun). Instead, they summarise or abstract away from a more detailed process.

That's how we get from:

"A large and diverse group of people are drawing maps"


"The democratization of cartography".

This snippet is from a history of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Russia. The snippet describes how, after the disaster, the Soviet government ordered citizens to hold street parades.

Notice how it describes a process in detail and compresses that detailed process into a nominalisation.

While the toiling masses throughout the world pretty much ignored the date, the Soviet toiling masses were ordered by the party to show their ideological zeal with street demonstrations. Parades of seemingly cheery workers and peasants dressed in holiday attire, marching with their children to the accompaniment of musical bands, were a standard feature of Soviet political culture. Such manifestations were particularly important after the accident to show that things were under control, with the party, and Gorbachev in particular, firmly in charge.

In this way, nominalisation lets you "package" complex information into a new thing that you can refer to more easily.

Here's another example, from another book about nuclear disasters. This snippet discusses how the difficulty of detecting radiation affects the social response to nuclear disasters:

The imperceptibility of radiation with the unaided senses thus means that radiation danger and its possible health effects might not be spontaneously obvious to those who experience them. The signs of radiation danger and its connection to actual or potential health effects have to be articulated: identified, explicated, and established as such. Radiation is not visible or observable to laypeople living in the contaminated areas without this work of articulation.

These articulations certainly might become commonsense over the course of time; we need not assume that laypeople remain culturally blind to imperceptible risks forever and under all circumstances.

Put aside the question of whether or not that snippet is interesting or easy to read. (It's pretty dry!)

Instead, notice how using the summary nominalisation 'articulation' means the writer can continue to refer to the work needed to identify the dangers, tell people about them, and get people to take those dangers seriously, without having to repeat all those details every time.

Let's try for ourselves. We'll describe a process in a little bit of detail. Then, we'll use a nominalisation that summarises the whole thing, so that we can talk about the process in a broader context.

In the Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes is imprisoned for treason when Danglars, a greedy cargo manager who is jealous of Dantes’ promotion to ship's captain, conspires against him with two of Dantes' supposed allies: Fernand, a fisherman who is jealous of Dantes’ fiance, and Villefort, a judge scared of the political repercussions of a letter delivered by Dantes. This betrayal leads Dantes to seek revenge against all three men.

  • Pick a topic that you feel comfortable writing about. You don't need a lot of detail. It might be something you’re learning in class, a personal hobby or interest, or you could write about something that happens in a book or movie you enjoy (like what we did with the Count of Monte Cristo example).
  • Don’t worry about making the description “well-written”—the key part of this exercise is coming up with a good abstract noun to summarise it all with. Just try to be clear about what you’re describing.
  • It might be easier to work backwards and pick a summary noun first. For example, if you start with the summary noun “invention”, you could write a detailed description of any inventor creating anything, and it would work. Here are some other example nouns you could use: idea, event, message, fate, novelty, disaster, decision, fairytale, crime
  • Finish up with a simple statement—what effect did your process or event have? Or what did it mean?
Write your own detailed description of a process or event, then use a simple nominalisation to summarise it.

The point of this exercise was to show you how writers compress complex processes into nominalisations, but this kind of compression is not always made explicit like in the snippets above.

  • As a reader, you will often have to unpack the meaning yourself.
  • As a writer, you will need to make decisions about whether the nominalisations you use need unpacking, or whether they are clear enough for readers.

In this snippet from The Wonderbox, about work conditions in the early nineteenth century, the author Roman Krznaric uses three nominalisations.

He explains one but assumes the reader understands the others. Do you agree?

Standard history texts will tell you that the nineteenth century saw the beginnings of a new era of choice for Europe’s workers, primarily due to the invention of meritocracy – rewarding people on the basis of their skills or aptitude – and the growth of public education.

Can you unpack the meaning of each nominalisation in this snippet? Would you have known what 'the invention of meritocracy' referred to if it wasn't explained?