7/2/11
The Printable KISS Grammar Workbooks KISS Vocabulary Exercises

Abstract and Concrete Words

Introduction

       We need to begin with a question -- Why is it important for you to learn the difference between abstract and concrete words? To answer that question, we need to go to a more basic one -- what is the purpose of talking or writing? I think that you will agree that the primary purpose of either is to get what is in your head (what you are trying to say) into the head or heads of readers or listeners.

Abstract words do not do this very effectively. If, at the dinner table, you want more mashed potatoes, but you ask for more "food," you may end up getting broccoli sprouts. "Food" is an abstract word; "mashed potatoes" is much more concrete.
     "Food" and "mashed potatoes" is a simple example of the distinction, and we should note at the beginning that all the most important words in our lives are probably abstract -- "love," "virtue," "patriotism," "money," "good," "evil," and "religion" are just a few of the important abstract words. In other words, we cannot simplify life by abandoning all abstract words and using only the concrete. Good communication actually involves an up and down movement from abstraction down to concrete words, and then back up to an abstraction, followed by downward explanation using concrete examples. 
     Learning how to do this effectively is not always easy because those people on the right in the image above don't usually see the world in the same way that you do. If you ask for a "short" stick, one of them might bring you a six-inch one, whereas another may give you a stick that is six feet long. If you want them to meet you in the "evening," two of them might show up at 4 p.m., and three might not appear before midnight. But if you used a concrete word, and told them to meet you at 8, they would probably all arrive close to that time, and those who were early or late would know that they were so.
     This brings us to the basic distinction between abstract and concrete words. Abstract words are words that people will interpret differently. When you use concrete words, what ends up in their heads will be much closer to what you wanted them to understand. (Note, by the way, that we are looking at phrases as well as words -- "mashed potatoes" is a phrase.)

Two Major Perspectives on Abstract Words

      Some abstract words can easily be broken down into smaller groups; others cannot.

Abstract Words That Can Easily Be Broken into Smaller Groups

Thing
Animal
Mammal
Cat
House Cat
Mysha

 
      Consider the list on the left. "Thing" is the most abstract word we have--it can refer to anything and everything. But "animal" is more concrete--it excludes rocks and plants. "Mammal" is even more concrete. Ducks are animals, but they are not mammals. If we move down to "cat," dogs and horses are now excluded, and "House Cat" excludes lions and tigers. At the bottom of the list, "Mysha" is the name of one specific cat. A word that refers to one, and only one thing, is as concrete (specific) as we can get.
     Note that "abstract" and "concrete" are not two boxes into which words can be separated. As the list on the left shows, words can be more, or less, "concrete." In other words, the "abstract" / "concrete" distinction is a continuum. To name a "continuum," by the way, we use fairly abstract words -- "hot" or "cold"; "soft" or "hard," "short" or "tall." 
     In writing, it is important to use concrete words so that your readers will know what you really mean. When your teachers tell you to use more examples and details, one of the things that they mean is that you should use more concrete words. 

Abstract Words That often Can Not Be Broken into Smaller Groups

     What is "beauty?" What is "happiness"? Unlike the words discussed above, "beauty" and "happiness" cannot be broken into smaller and smaller groups of words. But clearly "beauty" and "happiness" are abstract words. (Think of the many "Happiness is . . . ." statements that people make, almost all of which are different.) The extent to which you may want to clarify your meaning of these words depends on your purpose.
     When people show someone a picture of their new baby, a typical response is, "She's beautiful." Occasionally, the statement will be clarified to a small extent -- "Her eyes are so bright." Often, the statement is not clarified at all. In this context, "She's beautiful" is simply a polite response. (Hopefully, no one would ever respond with "She's ugly.") There are, however, many cases in which people would (or should or could) clarify what they mean by "beautiful." "That picture is beautiful," for example, is essentially meaningless unless whoever says it goes on to add details about the subject, the composition, the coloring, etc. of the picture.
     Clarifying words in this way is not easy. It requires some thought. But these words are often very important. What do you mean by words such as "responsibility," "honor," "loyalty," "liberal," "conservative," "virtue," or "patriotic"?

Using Abstract and Concrete Words

     Understanding these two perspectives on abstract and concrete words can help you in writing and thinking in several ways. For words that fall into a continuum, always try to pick the most concrete word that fits your meaning. As suggested above, that will help your audience understand you more easily. Also, if you can choose your topic for a paper, always go for something as concrete as you can. It is much easier for me, for example, to write about our cat Mysha than it is to write about cats in general.

     I can't remember when or where we got our cat Mysha, but he added joy to our lives. We named him "Mysha" because in Russian "Mysha" means "armpit." When he was small, he would climb into the chair I was in, and snuggle himself into my armpit. When he grew older, he was allowed to put his front paws, but only his front paws, on the kitchen table. At breakfast, I would shove a piece of bacon in his direction and he would stretch out, swat the bacon onto the floor, and jump down to get it. Like most cats, he loved to play with things. Once, he got hold of the toilet paper in the bathroom, pulled on it, made a left turn out the bathroom door, went ten feet down the hallway, turned right, scrambled across the living room, made another right, and ended at the door to the apartment. He did this without breaking the toilet paper.
I could easily triple the size of what I just wrote, but the point is that it is much easier to write about something specific (concrete) than it is to write about general topics like "cats."
     Words that fall into a continuum also make it easy to develop examples. Note how the following moves from the relatively abstract "birds" to specific species of birds, and then to specific species of animals.
      Birdseed invites more than just birds. It does, of course, invite birds. Our birdfeeder attracted a lot of sparrows and chickadees that sat on the edges of it to eat. But many birds simply came for the seeds that fall to ground. The usual robins came, but so did a pair of doves (always together). A pair of cardinals came, sometimes individually, but sometimes together. When they came together, it seemed as if the male would pick up a beakfull of seeds and then feed them to his mate. My wife's favorite visitor was a oriole that she named Cal. (She's a Cal Ripkin fan.)
      The squirrels, however, kept destroying the feeders. One way or another they would get to them, hang on them, and tear them apart. We almost gave up feeding them, but we loved the birds, and we also loved "Alvin," a tiny little chipmunk who was always alone. My wife saved his life once. Like the squirrels, he would get into the magnolia tree in which we hung the birdfeeder. He jumped off once and fell into a tub of water in which I had been collecting rain water from a downspout. He had no way out. We don't know how long he was in it, but fortunately, my wife saw him and managed to get him out alive. The tub has been moved far from the tree, and we now simply sprinkle seeds on the ground.
     The way in which Alvin stands up on his little legs and stares down the birds and even the much bigger squirrels is cute, so we continue to put out seeds for him and the birds. We tolerate the squirrels, but the seeds do attract less welcome visitors -- possums, raccoons, and even an occasional fox. The real pains are the skunks, but they only come at night. We've lowered the rations so that most of the seeds are eaten before nightfall.
I have heard people complain that students who write "more" get better grades. What these people do not understand is that good writing gets its "more" from the use of numerous concrete words.  Concrete words give examples that make what is written both clearer and more interesting.
     As for abstract words that do not easily fall into smaller groups, it is important that you recognize them to improve your thinking, reading, and writing skills. When Tom says that Bill is "brave" or "patriotic," what does Tom mean? If you yourself say that Bill is "brave" or "patriotic," what would you mean? As noted above, sometimes you will not need examples, but other times you probably should include some. As a good writer, that is your job.