Things and Ideas

Some writers and all grammar teachers make a distinction between concrete and abstract nouns. Concrete nouns name things we perceive with one of our senses: the word grass is a concrete noun because what we call grass is something we can see or touch; the word kindness is an abstract noun (as are most nouns that end in the suffix –ness) because what it names is an idea, something we perceive with our minds, not with our eyes or ears.

This distinction between concrete and abstract nouns is of practical service, because it seems to be the case that we humans just can’t help turning our attention to the ambulance screeching by. What’s happening is what’s interesting, and if there’s meaning to be found, we’re convinced we’ll find it in the things about us. That may be a wise way to look at the world, but too often the sentences we write won’t leave the world of ideas and bring meaning to live amidst us. We compose sentence after sentence with only abstract nouns, and the result is a cloudy, misty, vague world of generalities that leave our readers not quite sure what to look at and what to think.

Now there is no way to write well without using abstract nouns; let’s be clear about that. Paragraphs that pulse with life, that strike us as both vital and meaningful, often cannot help but include abstract nouns. This may not be the case in the poetry of master poets, but in expository prose, the kind of regular writing we undertake most of our regular days, we must pepper our sentences with abstract nouns in order to name the ideas we’re trying to get across. But pepper, not douse. Too many abstract nouns untempered by the concrete images cook up an unwholesome brew. The goal instead should be a tasty mix and attractive blend of both concrete and abstract ingredients.

Here is a brief passage from Willa Cather’s short story A Wagner Matinee that will illustrate the point (I quote the passage here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015). The narrator has just received a letter asking him to meet an old aunt he has not seen since boyhood.

The name of my Aunt Georgiana opened before me a gulf of recollection so wide and deep that, as the letter dropped from my hand, I felt suddenly a stranger to all the present conditions of my existence, wholly ill at ease and out of place amid the familiar surroundings of my own study.

The point of this one sentence is to convey a psychological reaction upon hearing some sudden news, news that kindled many powerful memories in the narrator of this story. What is psychological is mental, in and of our minds, and so the project before the author was to build an image or two that would act as an anchor to keep all that mind work close to the known shore. Cather does not say that reading the name of Aunt Georgiana awakened memories, a probable formulation a lesser writer might have been tempted to settle with. Instead, the name opened before me a gulf of recollection, an image that puts in front of us an indefinite reach of water, real water, perhaps even a whirlpool, which might overwhelm; we see water threatening to wave over the character in the same way we ourselves often feel overtaken by sudden, unexpected memories.

Now we could object, perhaps, that the word recollection is every bit as abstract as memories, and that would be true enough. But what we should notice here is the way the author has buttressed the abstraction with other concretions. We have already pointed to the specific, seeable geographic feature of a gulf; but there is too the parenthetical description of the letter dropping from a hand, both concrete nouns which keep us tied to the common objects we know as the sentence unfolds to describe the powerful psychological effect of the sudden news about the aunt’s arrival. That news affected the conditions of the narrator’s existence, his surroundings—all abstract nouns appropriate to the psychological purpose of the sentence, but all thereby potentially vague as well. To balance these abstractions, we find adjectives that describe qualities of more concrete realities—the conditions are present and the narrator is ill at ease and out of place, and the sentence concludes with the concrete noun study, a visible, circumscribable room of his house.

Cather’s sentence is an example of the judicious mix of concrete and abstract that makes for good writing, whether the purpose is literary or familiar. Understanding the difference between the concrete and abstract can help us keep our sentences in the real world, there to find amidst the common the higher reaches of ideas and meaning.



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