Nominalization and Grammatical Metaphor

Lately, my computer has started to give out to me whenever I use the passive voice – it would rather I use an active verb for a “livelier and more persuasive sentence”. Given all the help it gives me with spelling, I don’t really mind the computer trolling my writing, but it is not the only instance of fairly conventional academic norms getting slated. A few years back, Helen Sword took a shot at nominalization (my computer is insisting on that z, sorry) in her enjoyable Ted-Ed video, calling them zombie nouns*. Given the frequency (and usefulness) of both the passive voice and nominalization in a lot of academic written discourse, it would be a shame if well-intentioned style guides discouraged us from helping students master these forms. An article by Liardét (2016)  examines how learners develop nominalization.

What is Nominalization?

Liardét has written quite a bit on nominalization. She seems to operate within the Systemic Functional Linguistics tradition where nominalization is a realization of grammatical metaphor (GM). What this means is that in academic writing, we often construe qualities or verbs as things. For example, it is more typical to think of the adjective intelligent. The nominalized form – intelligence – is less typical (I think Halliday uses the term “congruent”). But with the nominalized form, you can do much more than you could with the adjective – you can measure intelligence, you can categorise intelligence, you can even multiply it (if you’re into that kind of thing!). This is obviously very useful in academic writing when we may be talking about abstract concepts**.

A lot of corpora analysis has shown that academic written texts are very nominal (Biber et al., 2003) unlike spoken texts which tend to rely more heavily on embedded clauses to carry meaning (Biber, Gray, & Poonpon, 2011). This means that speaking is quite “verb-y”, we tend to stack clauses on top of each other (e.g. I went to bed late yesterday which was stupid because I’m shattered today) whereas academic written work is less clause heavy, grammatically quite simple but squeezes a lot of meaning into the main noun (e.g. The development of a systematic approach to online assessment is worthwhile).

Nominalization can also be used to help the cohesion of a text via anaphoric reconstrual. This is where you take something you mentioned earlier, nominalise it and then make it the Theme of the new sentence. For instance – “Politicians in the UK and Ireland have been DISCUSSING ways to avoid a hard border. These DISCUSSIONS have become increasingly protracted.”

The aim of Liardét’s paper is to look at the development of grammatical metaphor in the writing of a group of Chinese students.

The Research

Liardét is more interested in looking at realizations of GM through incorrect use of nominalization. She argues that these errors with nominalization could demonstrate students attempting to develop GM – a sort of intermediate stage as they learn how to use nominalization. As teachers, we may only see the error and not the good stuff the student is attempting to do. The methodology chosen is corpora analysis (based on 130 Chinese students’ written work over a period of 2 years). In some cases, the corpora are analysed using standard corpora search criteria. In other cases, the corpora is sampled and analyzed manually to find instances of nominalization used incorrectly. The aim is to describe these intermediary stages in the development of nominalization

The Results

There were two very interesting general results that emerged from this study. First, the frequency of the students’ use of nominalization increased over the two-year period (although there is no detail as to classroom content so we don’t know if this was natural or facilitated).

Secondly, the students showed no improvement in the use of nominalization for cohesion. I found this interesting as this seems a fairly teachable way of both helping students build up vocabulary, improve their cohesion and use a bit more nominalization (e.g. a noun for POOR is POVERTY. If you use poor in one sentence, you can use poverty in the next to make a link and expand on the idea).

From her examination of student writing, Liardét offers six patterns of intermediary nominalization, which she found in student writing. These are:

  1. Gerund Noun. This is where the student might use an ING form as the head noun. The example given is “Original THINKING”. This intermediate realization might be the precursor to “Original THOUGHT” as the student develops.
  2. Gerundive Nominalization. This is where the student might use an ING form in a “the + noun + of” pattern. The example given is “The SPREADING of”. This intermediate realization might be the precursor to “The SPREAD of”.
  3. Incomplete reconstrual. This is where the student achieves the grammatical metaphor but does not use the right form of the word. For example, “The UNDERSTAND between countries” might be the precursor to “The UNDERSTANDING between countries”.
  4. Non-word reconstrual. This is where the student creates a new word. For example “BANKRUPTION and UNSTABILIZATION” might be intermediate stages on the way to “BANKRUPTCY and DESTABILIZATION”.
  5. Infelicitous pluralization. Basically, the grammatical metaphor is achieved but the student has made something uncountable, countable. For example, “many EVIDENCES”.
  6. Co-text intermediacy. Here the metaphor is used correctly but the adjoining words are incorrect. For example, “science ACHIEVEMENT” as opposed to “scientific ACHIEVEMENT”.


In my context, I work with students before entering university. Minimum entry for our course might be as low as IELTS 5.5. Often, our students write much like they speak – for instance, the subject of each sentence is often a person (or person type) – “Nowadays, people say…..”; “The government should…..”; “Many people believe that….”. Often “academic” writing is perceived as the use of lots of “big” words. Fair enough, nominalization is a pretty big word, but it can be a very helpful tool in demonstrating the difference between spoken and written academic discourse. I found this paper by Liardét helpful for the same reason – in general ELT we all know the mistakes students do and that helps us to intervene and help them out. A better understanding of students’ errors when trying to use nominalization can be similarly helpful.


There is not much in this article on how to teach nominalization (the focus is more on where interventions might be helpful). Would be nice if anyone has helpful resources to link in the comments section. Thanks.


Biber, D., Conrad, S., Leech, G. N., Leech, G., & Leech, G. (2003). Longman student grammar of spoken and written english. Harlow: Longman.

Biber, D., Gray, B., & Poonpon, K. (2011). Should we use characteristics of conversation to measure grammatical complexity in L2 writing development? TESOL Quarterly: A Journal for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages and of Standard English as a Second Dialect, 45(1), 5-35. doi:10.5054/tq.2011.244483

Liardét, C. L. (2016). Nominalization and grammatical metaphor: Elaborating the theory. English for Specific Purposes, 44, 16-29. doi:10.1016/j.esp.2016.04.004


*Jennifer MacDonald has a nice response to the Sword video here 

**Richard Ingold’s MA thesis (here) is a great place to start if you would like to read more on Systemic Functional Linguistics

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Stephen Bruce
Pre-Masters Course Leader at Dublin International Foundation College
Stephen works as an EAP tutor in Ireland for Dublin International Foundation College. He is a member of ELT Ireland and blogs at and tweets @EAPSteve.

7 thoughts on “Nominalization and Grammatical Metaphor”

  1. Dear Stephen,

    I was interested to read your thoughts on the Liardet paper and the use of nominalisation. In particular you wondered if there were any pedagogical materials that could help students understand this important aspect of academic style. Could I recommend reading EAP Essentials: a teacher’s guide to principles and practice, written by my colleagues, Sue Argent, Jenifer Spencer and I Chapter 2 covers Text Analysis and includes nominalisation from a Systemic Functional Linguistics approach. Like your website, our book aimed to make research accessible for teachers. We also included a CD ROM of classroom materials which we have tried out in our classrooms and which students have found useful.

    Best wishes


    1. Dear Olwyn,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read, comment and the link. I actually have a copy of your book and find it very useful for my teaching. I should have mentioned this in the post.

      Happy New Year


    1. Thanks Richard – the article by Liardet is very helpful. I found myself thinking of it recently when correcting some student writing. It influenced the feedback I gave – the student had written something like “Student written badly can affect meaning”. In the past, I might have suggested a conditional to the student (e.g. If the student writes badly, it can affect the meaning). But I thought the student in this case might have been attempting grammatical metaphor/nominalization (i.e. Student writing).

      Thanks for the links. Will check them out.

      Seasons greetings

  2. Hi there, and thanks for this. I see the author has another paper in the same area in the same journal (April 2018 but ahead of print here:

    Marie-Hélène Fries at Grenoble University has a paper on compound nouns in our new collection on ESP teaching and learning research

    She’s not using as SFL approach but does discuss ways of teaching complex nominal groups in scientific/engineering discourse.

    1. Hi Shona,

      Thanks for commenting and sharing those links. Yes, I’ve seen (and enjoyed) a couple of other articles by Liardet on nominalization. I hadn’t seen the one you linked to – thanks, I will check it out. The Fries one is also very interesting – I love the SFL stuff but the link to classroom practice is not always as explicit as I’d like. Actually, that Fries one is really helpful for an assignment I’m working on at the moment. Thanks!


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