Abstract and Concrete Nouns: Definition, Examples, Style, & Usage
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
— George Orwell, 1984
All writing tries to prove something, be it the dangers of tyranny, the depths of a conspiracy, or the credibility of your research. Your first sentence is an open door, and it has one chance to convince a reader to step inside.
Orwell did something that many writers struggle to do with his opening line of 1984: he clearly and succinctly told his reader something, made them ask a question, and convinced them to keep reading. Some writers might even resort to reusing his opening line rather than trying to match him. Can you imagine?
Orwell’s precision in this sentence is flawless. With the help of two short adjectives and three concrete nouns, he creates an entire world in fourteen words. At first glance, thirteen seems to do all the work; however, it’s that twist of strange combined with the clean line of ordinary that makes it so disarming.
What would happen if 1984 opened, instead, with a parade of abstract nouns? Would it have the same effect?
“Coldness cloaked the springtime brilliance in rhythm with the steady clang of democracy’s death march. An eagle’s sorrowful echo, charity brought on the wind, hangs an omen on the thirteenth chime.”
What does that passage mean? Next to nothing, but it certainly takes a lot of words to say it, and it has a symbolically sad bird. When in doubt, add a sad bird. (Don’t actually do this.)
Are you scratching your head and wondering: What is a concrete noun? What is an abstract noun? Keep reading for a concrete and abstract noun definition, as well as tips and tricks to help you write clearly and make your point. For even more help, try out our grammar check.
What are Abstract Nouns and How Do You Use Them?
Abstract nouns are words that name concepts, beliefs, qualities, attributes, and ideas. A broader abstract noun definition might be that they name things without physical properties. A narrower answer to what is an abstract noun is, perhaps: you can’t touch them.
Abstract Noun Examples:
The process of turning a different part of speech into a noun is called nominalization. Good, an adjective, becomes the abstract noun goodness. Hate, a verb, transforms into the noun hatred. To learn more about nominalization and morphology, consider this research for further reading.
Abstract nouns are not inherently bad, and their use varies depending on the project at hand. Consulting your style guide will help you identify the tone and word choices that are appropriate. Our grammar and citation tools can help you with MLA format and more styles.
More important than the abstract noun definition is their usage and placement. Too many in one place will muddy up your point; put your ideas in the clouds; send your reader grasping for the meaning dangling just out of reach; transform curiosity into confusion; create weariness and wariness; sow the seeds of faithlessness; defeat the goodwill of your readers as you sacrifice their interest on the altar of bloated prose...you get it.
Writers outside of creative and literary fields face a different set of challenges. Watson and Crick, for example, didn’t have the luxury of using the concrete double helix before they discovered it.
Instead, they wrote:
“This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.”
Even the ever-precise Orwell would agree that those three abstract nouns served them well.
APA format requires clarity and conciseness, but academic, scientific, and philosophical writing frequently deal directly with the abstract. We have plenty of tools and resources that can help you take some of the guesswork out of your formatting.
What Does Concrete Noun Mean?
Quick review: What is an abstract noun? It's a noun without physical properties, frequently dealing with ideas and concepts and painting a broad picture.
What is a concrete noun? These are the names we give to things that are tangible and specific which can be perceived by the senses; things we can see, feel, and hear.
To explore these definitions even further, check out this page.
Concrete Noun Examples:
Anton Chekhov is responsible for the oft-repeated advice, show, don’t tell. Of course, Chekhov didn’t say it so concretely:
“...you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
Show, don’t tell is good advice to take in moderation. In large doses, however, adjectives run amok and barrel through every concrete noun in their path. Verbs start dealing only in extremes, either showing up in droves or not showing up at all, choosing in these latter moments to send an abstract noun in their place.
The crisp water of the Mississippi River can quickly become the thundering current of coldness and freedom when a writer tries to avoid concrete telling in their writing.
So is abstract bad? Is concrete good?
No. And no.
Abstract vs Concrete Nouns
S.I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, introduced a concept called the ladder of abstraction, suggesting that concrete and abstract language are on opposite sides of the semantic spectrum. Writing that stays solely at the top or bottom of the ladder loses the reader, whereas writing that travels from one side of the ladder to the other balances richness with understanding.
Consider Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which begins:
“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
What happens next is marvelous. Traveling up and down the ladder of abstraction, Dickens starts with the concrete Marley and dead, then adds the abstract noun doubt. The paragraph continues: concrete, concrete, concrete.
One paragraph into the story, Dickens is off to the races. He pauses the narration to ponder the simile dead as a doornail, then wanders into some backstory. He comes back around to his point about Marley for just a moment, then meanders off into a paragraph about Hamlet. Such is Dickens. He builds up trust. He doesn’t jump into calling Scrooge “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone.” No. First, he gives you the concrete: Scrooge. Concrete, abstract, concrete, abstract. It’s exhilarating.
Even Hemingway and Orwell, paragons of the specific, sought this balance to enhance their writing. When starting with the concrete, traveling up the ladder of abstraction expands upon the greater meaning. When an abstract noun comes first, moving down into the concrete will ground the idea and gives it roots.
Consider abstract the tiramisu and concrete the strawberry cheesecake of nouns: very different yet equally delicious desserts. Overindulge in either one, though, and you’ll end up with a stomach ache.