Inverse Nominalization — Nouns-as-Verbs

Most of us have heard that “active tense” is usually (many will say always) better than “passive tense.”

“A negligently drove his car against B” is typically clearer and more readable than “B was injured in a car crash as a result of A’s negligence.” The emphasis of the sentence ( modeled on a form pleading) coincides with the writer’s focus — the negligent actor A and his conduct.

But the preference for active tense isn’t a hard and fast rule because action is not always the focus. A doctor treating B, for instance, would probably be concerned with the car accident only insofar as it was relevant to the nature of B’s injuries: he would probably say something more like “B’s injuries were sustained when he was struck by a car moving at 30 miles per hour.” In this case the injuries are the focus and the “hidden subject,” A, is irrelevant.

The principled rule is: “Use active tense unless you have a reason not to.”

There’s another side to this issue that isn’t just a matter of good writing, which you can see in pieces like “The Dark Side of Verbs-as-Nouns.” This author frets that the nominalization “take-away” “seems to represent education as a product rather than a practice. It invites an answer that’s a sound bite, a Styrofoam-sheathed portion of spice, a handy little package to be slavishly reproduced.” Worse still: “Such phrasing also curtails the lecturer’s role, making him or her not so much a source of ideas and a repository of intellectual trust as a purveyor of data packets.”

Now the “lecturer,” already convinced that his tenured and tenure-track colleagues sneer behind his back, is reduced to a nullity — an invisible “purveyor of data packets.” An academic’s worst nightmare, indeed!But what of the opposite trend (and really, academic writing lately overflows with this) — the conversion of nouns into verbs?

Two examples: “banked” (meaning “has access to banking services”) and “housed” (“has a house”). Most often these terms are preceded by “un”: “unbanked”; “unhoused.” Banked and  housed are slight variations on a theme: “unhoused” is replacing “homeless” in academic discourse, while “unbanked” is as far as I can see a new concept, or at least half of one.

Why though, is the verb form preferred? I believe the answer is that it shifts the focus from the individual described to the implied but unseen actor; that is, the party not “housing” a person.

“Homeless” is an individual condition; “unhoused” is a societal failure. This is called “question-begging” and “assuming the ground in conflict.”

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