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Bar News - May 14, 2010

Get Judges to Read Your Brief First


For some mysterious reason, lawyers are prone to nominalizations. Also called "buried verbs" or "abstract nouns," nominalizations are verbs used as nouns. Some examples: Nominalization: My expectation was that the neighbors would make an attempt at cooperation.

Better: I expected the neighbors to cooperate.

Nominalization: This report gives an analysis of the issue and offers a solution.

Better: This report analyzes the issue and solves it.
Eliminating nominalizations makes text more readable because it focuses on the action. Changing these nouns back to verbs also reduces the total number of words, which is especially handy when you’re struggling to stay within a word limit. (Did you know that judges generally read shorter briefs first?)

"If you use nominalizations instead of base verbs, surplus words begin to swarm like gnats," wrote the brilliant Richard Wydick, author of Plain English for Lawyers. And, he says, if you try to dress up base verbs, "You squash their life and motion."

Wydick recommends hunting down nominalizations via their typical endings:

-al -ent -ancy
-ment -ence -ity
-ant -ion -ency

Here’s a list of common lawyerly nominalizations. (The preferred verb should be obvious.) Issue a ruling
Bring a motion
Have knowledge
Perform an evaluation
Be dependent on
Be in violation of
Offer testimony
Bring suit against
Come to a resolution
Conduct an analysis
Place a limitation upon
Enter into a settlement
Make a recommendation
Perform a review
Reveal the identity of
Place emphasis on
Makes mention of
Reach a resolution
Provide an explanation
Are in compliance with
Take into consideration
Sometimes, of course, nominalizations are unavoidable and in those cases they’re acceptable. Just clean them up when a verb would do just as well.

A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. She can be reached at This article is reprinted with permission from the Bar Association of San Francisco, and was first published in the November 2009 issue of its Bar Bulletin.

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