Precision is the watchword of style, and if we could keep the question just what am I talking about? steadily before us as we revise, we would find ourselves writing more clearly because our attention would be focused first on the nouns we have written. We are writing because we have something to say. Something. Nouns name things. They answer to the question What?, and the more precise we are about that what, the better we position ourselves to be understood. And therein lies style.
Just what we’re talking about, though, quickly becomes a question more complicated—and more interesting—than we might have thought. As the logicians like to say, the world to our everyday mind is made up of things, some visible, some not, some we can perceive with our senses, some we cannot. Grammarians divide the thousands upon thousands of nouns we create into two large domains: concrete and abstract. Concrete nouns (the word concrete means grown together, or coalesced, and refers to the idea that something is what it is by virtue of all its many qualities, or attributes, which hold it together as something) name things we perceive with at least one of our five common senses: we can see or touch or taste or smell or hear what is a concrete noun—a tree, for example, or a table or chair.
But management or freedom or hate? These words, too, are all nouns, but they name realities we perceive with our minds, not our senses. What we understand when we use the word freedom is the idea of being free, something we extract (or abstract, which means to draw or pull away) from a set of concrete realities. The unhampered freedom I saw in those two little children playing with their dog on the beach under a blue, blue sky and bright sun over the weekend—that freedom I did not see with my eyes: I saw it with my mind while my eyes saw the concrete realities of two children and a dog and a beach and a sky and the sun. Freedom, therefore, at least as a noun, is an abstract reality.
But we have to be careful here, as always it seems, with the lines we draw. So strange and complicated is the world we help create with our language, that our nouns can oftentimes cross easily over the border of concrete and abstract. I heard a newscaster say recently that in anticipation of an expected hurricane, residents of the small coastal town were ordered to seek shelter. Is the noun shelter here concrete or abstract? A shelter, as a concrete noun, is a structure that covers something to protect it, but surely all the residents of this town were not being directed to one actual building, no matter how large that shelter might have been. Instead, the concrete noun shelter, the structure, has been employed here as an abstract noun, meaning protection, and that is why there is no article, either definite (the) or indefinite (a), before the noun shelter. To have included either article in this context (or to have made the noun plural) would have been to concretize the noun by specifying it, and that was not what the newscaster wanted to communicate. In just what kind of structure the residents were to find protection was not the point; finding protection and safety—both abstract nouns—was.
The lesson to be drawn (no pun intended) from this distinction between concrete and abstract nouns is that the precise choices we make in constructing our sentences determine how well we hold the reader’s attention to what we really mean to say. Precise choices lie in the details of grammar, and often the slightest change can make all the difference. Those many coastal residents could have been ordered to seek shelters elsewhere, but that would have sent them looking for certain buildings, not the protection those buildings could afford. The concrete embodies the abstract, and that distinction can help us sharpen our perceptions and write more precisely.