How To Use Grammatical Metaphor In Academic Writing

Writing is one of the most important skills that any scholar can have. However, it takes a long time to master the art of writing, especially in a second or third language. Writing clearly and concisely in English is a challenge even for native speakers, and academic writing in particular requires a unique tone and format. Grammatical metaphors are one tool available in the academic writer’s toolbox to improve clarity and polish professional academic writing. However, overuse of this writing technique can quickly make a piece of scholarship nearly impossible to decipher. In this article we will discuss what a grammatical metaphor is, how to use it to improve your academic writing, and what to avoid to make sure that your writing maintains an acceptable standard.

What Is A Grammatical Metaphor?

What is a grammatical metaphor anyway? Most of us are familiar with lexical or literary metaphors, when one thing is compared to another for dramatic effect. “Love is life” is one example of a lexical metaphor. The word “life” means “being alive,” but in this metaphor it means that love is essential to existence. Grammatical metaphors should not be confused with lexical metaphors. Grammatical metaphors, also known as nominalization, take ideas that are usually expressed using one grammatical structure and rephrase them as another. Typically, a grammatical metaphor rewrites verbs or adjectives as nouns, which is why the term is synonymous with nominalization. For example, suggest becomes suggestion, implement becomes implementation, and behave becomes behavior.

Let’s examine several examples of how this looks in a sentence.

  • Companies find it difficult to hire good employees without conducting interviews.

=> Interview screenings are key to hiring good employees.

In this example, the verb phrase “conducting interviews” is transformed into the noun “interview screenings” and the sentence is rearranged accordingly. Note that the agent performing the action (interviewing), the companies, has vanished from the sentence.

  • Millions of people starved to death in North Korea in the 1990s, which impacted the country’s politics for a generation.

=> North Korea’s famine in the 1990s impacted the country’s politics for a generation.

In this example, we have taken “millions of people starved to death in North Korea” and shortened it to “North Korea’s famine.” This makes the sentence more concise. It also makes it easy to connect this sentence with subsequent discussion regarding the impacts of the famine. If we have to keep saying “when people starved to death” it can make it difficult to follow the argument. This is one reason that nominalization is favored in academic writing, which focuses on connecting ideas and building arguments.

Does Grammatical Metaphor Really Improve Academic Writing?

When used appropriately, grammatical metaphors can improve academic writing significantly. This is the case for several reasons. First, constructing sentences in this manner allows for more information to be fit into a shorter sentence. Second, writing in this way allows for reasoning within sentence clauses rather than between them. This makes it easier to connect ideas and structure text as a whole. In other words, grammatical metaphor is often concise whereas more natural spoken sentence structures seem to take a while to get to the main point. Because grammatical metaphor allows for more complex sentences and smooth connections, its use can make academic writing sound more mature and authoritative. In addition, grammatical metaphors can make connections clear that would be obscured using spoken grammatical structures. Here are some examples of where nominalization clarifies intended meaning and makes the sentence more concise.

  • People become depressed for a variety of different reasons.

=> Depression has a variety of causes.

  • The congressional representatives debated all night to decide whether or not to pass the budget.

=> Debates over whether to pass the budget bill lasted all night.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Write Like This All The Time?

However, grammatical metaphors have their downsides as well. Because grammatical metaphors transform a verb or adjective into a noun, they often place this noun in the position of the subject. The result is that it becomes unclear who is performing the action. This is particularly true for sentences that use both nominalization and the passive voice. Used too frequently, this type of phrasing can confuse the reader and obscure agency. Let’s look at an example where nominalization has removed agency and made it difficult to understand who is doing what.

  • Deforestation is a key driver of climate change.

Who exactly is doing the deforesting? Nominalization in this example has made it possible to avoid naming anyone as responsible for said deforestation that is resulting in climate change. It makes it difficult to talk about how to combat deforestation if we cannot pinpoint the cause.

It is also possible for grammatical metaphor to introduce ambiguity into an otherwise clear sentence. For example:

  • Increased political extremism is clearly associated with decreased social welfare provision.

In the sentence above, first glance seems to indicate that decreased social welfare provision is the cause of increased political extremism. However, it can be read both ways (increased political extremism leads to a decrease in social welfare provision).

Finally, while we looked at some examples above where nominalization made a sentence more concise, it can also sometimes have the opposite effect.

  • Commencement of the experiment will occur in three hours.

=> The experiment will commence in three hours.

How To Use Grammatical Metaphors Effectively In Academic Writing

Grammatical metaphors can be good or bad for academic writing, as we have seen above. So how do you know when to use them? The simple answer to this question is practice. The more you read and write, the more easily you will be able to write well yourself. Professional editing and proofreading services, of course, are always helpful for reviewing your academic writing. But if you prefer a more technology-oriented solution, AI tools like Trinka can help. Trinka is an AI grammar and spelling checker specifically created for academics. Trinka is also good at understanding tone and sentence construction, and can highlight instances where nominalization would improve a sentence. It can also help reword sentences made unwieldy by nominalization. AI tools like Trinka can help you write smooth, clear, and concise academic papers without spending hours sweating over phrasing.

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