One very practical question we can pose to ourselves as we write and revise is, what am I talking about? Saying something about something is, after all, just what we’re doing over and over, sentence by sentence, as we put a document together. We see something in our mind and we have to find the word or phrase that names it for others who are not in our minds, who could not, therefore, have seen what we saw from the perspective we perceived it. But what, really, is a thing?
That might sound like a deep philosophical question, but it is relevant even to a quite unphilosophical sentence like this one: Our building is going to replace the pipes in the bathrooms on our tier in the next couple weeks, and there will be a lot of construction noises in my unit. A student brought this sentence to me the other day and he wanted to know whether the plural noun noises was correct: should he write construction noises or construction noise?
If it’s true, as we just said, that writing is saying something about something, then it might just be that how well we write depends first on how well we are perceiving what we want to write about. Nouns, of course, name things, and grammarians make a distinction between what are called concrete and abstract nouns because the nature of what we perceive differs. To perceive something means to become aware of its existence, and we become aware of things either with our five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, or smelling), or with our mind. If we are putting a noun to something we have come to be aware of sensorially, that noun is concrete: that tree outside or the screen you might be reading this on is concrete because your eyes are making you aware of it. But if I say that writing can take some practice, the noun writing is abstract, because I’m talking about the idea of putting words meaningfully together.
One way to detect whether a noun is concrete or abstract is by noting its number. Concrete nouns may be singular or plural (tree or trees), but abstract nouns can only be singular (writing). The minute we make an abstract noun plural, we have transformed it into a concrete noun: writing is abstract because it means the idea of composing words; but writings is concrete, as in the sentence I have read all his writings, because the same noun then means the books or essays or articles which my eyes have poured over to understand. Likewise, I might acclaim the importance of freedom, but to speak of the freedoms one enjoys is to make an idea specific: political freedom or economic freedom or ethical freedom.
Now it is just this idea of specificity that makes knowing the difference between a concrete and abstract noun so important. My student who wrote about the construction noises in his building thought, as he put it, that “using the singular was quite bland. With the plural, I could vivify the drilling, hammering, and sawing, which are more lively.” That is a very sharp perception on his part, but his attempt to bring those specific sounds before the reader by pluralizing the already concrete noun noise is foiled by the noun construction, which in this context is abstract. To speak of construction here is to refer to the general idea of building and renovating, which will result naturally in some concrete but undefined noise.
Merely to make the concrete noun noise plural, then, is not to go far enough; the abstract noun construction is too strong and dominates the context. But there is another way to achieve the lively specificity the writer correctly wanted: there will be a lot of construction noise in my unit: drilling and hammering and sawing. Here, the phrase construction noise introduces a generality which is immediately made more specific, and that brings interest to the sentence. Context determines the behavior of words, and so we should remember to look around the words we want to change, to see their nature and function, in order to find perhaps an even sharper revision.
Great column! Your Writing Smartly columns to so helpful.
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