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Concrete and abstract nouns

Some writing problems are more common than others. One of those problems is the tendency to write in abstractions – to talk about concepts and ideas that are hard to visualize. Good writing, on the other hand, is typically concrete – full of details that a reader can see, feel, taste or hear in his imagination. Excellent writers enable us to picture their subject matter. This lesson is about how to write in a way that paints pictures in a reader’s mind.  

The place start is with nouns. There are several ways to categorize nouns -- singular and plural, proper and common, simple and compound. But for the writer, a vital distinction is between abstract and concrete nouns. 

Simply, concrete nouns are nouns that name people, places, and things that are tangible, or that have real, physical existence. Abstract nouns, on the other hand, name intangible things: concepts, ideas, emotions.

Notice that there's no grammatical difference between concrete and abstract nouns. They are all simply words that name. They function identically in every sentence. The distinction is in what they name, and this is only important as an element of style. 

As simple as this seems, some nouns are trickier to categorize. I used to describe concrete nouns as "nouns that name things that can be identified by our senses." Students would get confused about words like electron or cytoplasm. These are things that cannot be seen without powerful microscopes. But they are clearly concrete objects, and it is possible to see them. So, they are concrete.

And what about words like unicornGodzilla, or hobbit? These imaginary creatures have no realphysical existence, so does that make them abstract? No. These words are concrete nouns because they would have real physical existence, if they happened to actually exist at all. They serve the same concrete purpose in a work of fiction as real-life creatures would in non-fiction. A word doesn’t have to name a real object to be a concrete noun. 

There are still other words that seem to straddle the line between abstract and concrete. What about words like war or winter? These kinds of nouns name concepts that have very identifiable signs. There is a sense in which we can "see" a war or winter, right? Yes, but these words are abstract because they are, at root, concepts. The truth is we don't really see war. We might see soldiers, tanks, weapons and explosions, all of which indicate the concept of war, but we don't actually see war any more than we see peace when we experience it. And we see and feel the signs of the season we know as winter, but not winter itself. 

What about spirit or soul? Are these words concrete or abstract? 

Now that's a good question, and I'll leave it up to you. It makes for a good debate, but it doesn’t really matter.  

What does matter is that you focus as much of your writing as possible on the concrete. Give your readers images of real people, places, and things. Tell stories. Paint pictures. Abstract nouns are fine. They are useful and important, but if you stay in the abstract world of ideas and never give your reader something to see and feel, they are likely to lost or lose interest.