Concrete and Abstract

If someone said to you, there was police activity in the alley last night, would you know what happened? You would not. If a coworker told you that there are a number of issues and aspects that have come up related to the development of the project you both are working on, would you know without any question what that person was referring to? You would not. Both of these statements have pulled you up into the murky, misty skies of impressions and notions.

One of the great principles of writing and speaking is clarity, and from the grammatical point of view, clarity is secured by achieving a balance between the concrete and the abstract. These two terms are used to classify nouns, the words that name things. Concrete nouns name things we perceive with one of our five senses. We can see or touch a tree, so the word tree is a concrete noun. We can taste an apple, smell a rose, or hear the thunder, so apple, rose, and thunder are all concrete nouns. Concrete nouns keep us in the world of actuality, the empirical world we have awareness of through our senses.

Abstract nouns, on the other hand, name things we perceive not with our senses, but with our mind. We cannot see or touch or taste or smell or hear an issue or an aspect. These nouns are only ideas residing in our mind. They are, as we say, after the fact. And when we step away from the common world of specific fact—something we must, of course, do as thinking human beings—and resort to abstract nouns too frequently, we are open to the risk of vagueness and generality. The very term abstract denotes in its Latin derivation drawn away from: abs means from or away, and the letters tract are the same as in our word tractor, something that pulls or draws. An abstract noun, therefore, draws us away from the sensorial world into the world of ideas, where indeed our intelligence, but also generalities, lie.

The problem, then, is not that we use abstract nouns; one cannot write or think intelligently without them. The problem is that we use too many of them. Because it is easier to think in generalities, because we believe saying something vaguely is, after all, still saying something, we too often convince ourselves that the reader will figure out what we specifically mean: let’s just get something down and done. That, however, is to transfer our proper work to someone else, forgetting that when we blindly trust the reader to understand our ambiguities, we have forfeited any right of being understood correctly. And that, upon a little reflection, is where very few of us would ever want to be.

There is a proper time and place for general statements and the broader ideas they convey. But there is a proper time and place as well for the specific and particular. The abstraction of police activity in the alley will only arrest my attention when police activity becomes the police arrested three men with guns. Then I know what happened—then I understand. And is that not ultimately the reason we write?


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion