Too many notes, too many nouns

In Miloš Forman’s film, Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart his latest work is excellent, except that there are “too many notes”.

None today would agree with His Majesty, but we can fairly accuse academics, scientists, lawyers, government officials and other writers of “too many nouns”.

Nouns are to writing what fat is to the body: both are absolutely essential, but too much of either can give you that bloated, sluggish feeling. We’ve already had occasion to examine “noun piles” ( Today we turn to the phenomenon of nominalisations. This is a fancy pants word for turning adjectives and verbs into nouns. As per usual, this is best explained by looking at an example, this one from Joseph Williams*:

The current estimate is of a 50% reduction in the introduction of new chemical products in the event that compliance with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice becomes a requirement under proposed Federal legislation.

Spelling correct? – check. Good grammar? – check. But this isn’t the most vibrant sentence you’ve ever read, right? The problem of course is “too many nouns”. The counterpart of the noun is the verb. Consider the verbs here: is and becomes. If you just looked at the verbs you’d have no idea what the passage is about. So let’s get to work and change some of those nouns back into verbs.

If Congress requires that the chemical industry comply with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice, we estimate that the industry will introduce 50% fewer new products.

Now the verbs begin to tell us the story: requires / comply / estimate / introduce. The key is to keep a razor sharp focus on “actors” and “actions”. Make the actor the subject of your sentence or clause and use a strong verb to describe the action.

Here’s another example of the sort I’m sure you’ve come across:

In the event of the termination of this Agreement by the Client before the expiration of the project period, the Client must undertake payment of all costs that Service Provider has accrued at the date of termination.

I’ve highlighted the nouns we can turn into verbs, with this result:

If the client terminates this Agreement before the project period expires, the Client must pay all costs that Service Provider has accrued at the date of termination.

This revision also illustrates an acceptable, indeed preferred use of a nominalisation. Termination here provides a crisp back reference to “If the client terminates this Agreement”.

Now you have a go with reversing some common nominalisations. I’ve done the first couple.

submit an application


take into consideration


provide an illustration of

provide a description of

place a limitation upon

make provision for

* Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, 1995 University of Chicago Press



Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.

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