Nominalisation is an important feature of academic writing. It adds variety, objectivity and an impersonal tone to texts. Nominalisation also makes writing more reader-friendly and concise by allowing writers to pack a great deal of information into sentences.

What is nominalisation?

Nominalisation is the formation of a noun phrase from a clause or a verb. This is done by changing verbs (and adjectives) to nouns. For example:

Verb Noun Adjective Noun
refuse refusal annoyed annoyance
extend extension difficult difficulty
investigate investigation different difference
react reaction valuable value
fail failure intense intensity
Consider the following sentences:
Sentences without nominalisation Sentences with nominalization
He failed, which angered his parents. His failure caused his parents’ anger.
The police investigated but uncovered no evidence. The police investigation uncovered no evidence.
David loves junk food, which causes him to be obese. David’s love of junk food is the cause of his obesity.
The professor refused to extend the deadline, which made the students feel annoyed. The professor’s refusal of a deadline extension caused student annoyance.
The course was difficult, so many students performed poorly. The course’s difficulty resulted in poor student performance.

Notice how the verbs and adjectives in the left side of the chart are changed to nouns and noun phrases in the right side. This process of nominalisation creates complexity, formality and objectivity and is a feature used by all good academic writers.

It is important to understand that noun phrases can only contain one ‘head noun’ (main noun), and that all other information in the phrase is describing that head noun.

Locating Head Nouns in Noun Phrases

It is common for nominalised (noun) phrases to contain more than one noun. Consider the following example:

     The University English Language Centre located in the basement of the main academic building…

In this phrase, the ‘head noun’ (main noun) is ‘Centre’, with the words ‘University’, ‘English’, and ‘Language’ acting as adjectives that provide information about the kind of ‘Centre’ it is. The ‘-ed’ participle clause ‘located in the basement of the main academic building’ which follows the head noun  provides additional information about what kind of ‘Centre’ it is (in this case, its location).

There is only one head noun in every noun phrase because all other information (either before or after) provides additional information about that noun. It is important to understand that head nouns are not found in surrounding relative clauses, participle clauses or prepositional phrases (phrases beginning with a preposition) because their function is to provide information about the head noun. 

Locating head nouns in noun phrases is an important first step in understanding the structure of nominalised sentences, and in using nominalisation in your writing.

Quick task: Can you identify the head nouns in the following?

  1. The infrastructure damaged by the storm
  2. The official death toll from the typhoon
  3. The coastal Philippine provinces of Leyte and Samar
  4. The three countries most vulnerable to natural disasters
  5. The oldest big cat fossils ever found
(Used with permission from the BBC)
(Answers: 1) infrastructure 2) toll 3) provinces 4) countries 5) fossils)


1. ‘damaged by the storm is an -‘ed’ participle clause providing more information about the head noun ‘infrastructure’. (Note: the writer removes the words ‘which was’ from the front of the clause because they are understood and unnecessary.)

2. ‘official’ and ‘death’ describe the head noun ‘toll’. ‘from the typhoon’ is a prepositional phrase providing more information about the head noun ‘toll

3. ‘coastal’ and ‘Philippine’ describe the head noun ‘provinces’. ‘of Leyte and Samar’ is a prepositional phrase giving more information (the names) of the head noun ‘provinces’.

4. ‘three’ describes the head noun ‘countries’, and ‘most vulnerable to natural disasters’ is a relative clause also giving more information about the head noun ‘countries’. (Note: the writer removes the words ‘which are’ from the front of the relative clause as they are understood and unnecessary.)

5. ‘oldest’ / ‘big’ and ‘cat’ all describe the head noun ‘fossils’. ‘ever found’ is a relative clause giving more information about the head noun ‘fossils’. (Note: The full clause is ‘which have ever been found’, but the writer removes the words ‘which have’ and ‘been’ as they are understood and unnecessary.)

The Importance of Nominalisation

Read the following excerpt from a typical BBC article and notice the high degree of nominalisation the writer uses. (Nominalised sections are in red.)

Philippine typhoon: Aquino criticises local officials

UK effort
Britain's HMS Daring - which is now off the coast of Cebu City - is the latest vessel to join the relief effort. Its crew is now preparing to dispatch aid to the Panay Island, in the far west of Cebu.

Another British ship - the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious - is on its way to the Philippines.

On Saturday Britain announced it will give an extra £30m ($50m) in emergency aid. The DEC said donations it had collected from the public had reached £33m.

About 11 million people have been affected by Typhoon Haiyan, according to UN estimates. It was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded on land, with winds exceeding 320km/h (200 mph) unleashing massive waves.

Health experts have warned that the worst-affected areas are entering a peak danger period for the spread of infectious diseases.

Used with permission from the BBC:

Now read the following excerpt from a typical academic text and notice the high degree of nominalisation the writer uses. (Nominalised sections are in red.)

The Value of a College Degree

The escalating cost of higher education is causing many to question the value of continuing education beyond high school. Many wonder whether the high cost of tuition, the opportunity cost of choosing college over full-time employment, and the accumulation of thousands of dollars of debt is, in the long run, worth the investment. The risk is especially large for low-income families who have a difficult time making ends meet without the additional burden of college tuition and fees.

There is considerable support for the notion that the rate of return on investment in higher education is high enough to warrant the financial burden associated with pursuing a college degree. Though the earnings differential between college and high school graduates varies over time, college graduates, on average, earn more than high school graduates.

Source: (ERIC Identifier: ED470038 -- Publication Date: 2002-00-00)

These examples illustrate that nominalisation is a very common feature of both academic and non-academic texts, and that it should be studied, practised and included in your writing.
Carefully read the instructions before completing each task below.

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