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Abstract vs Concrete Nouns: Definitions, 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.

With his opening line of 1984, Orwell did something that many writers struggle to do: 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, ordinary adjective that makes it so disarming.

What would happen if 1984 opened, instead, with a parade of abstract nouns? Would it have the same effect? What is the advantage of using concrete nouns first? What is the balance of abstract vs concrete nouns? Is there an ideal abstract vs concrete nouns ratio?

“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? Quite a bit, especially if you break down the abstract and concrete nouns in the sentence. The first sentence uses the abstract and concrete nouns brilliance and springtime respectively, to essentially describe the season and the narrator’s feelings toward it. It continues with the metaphor of that seasonal explanation with the abstract noun and concrete noun democracy and a death march, essentially showing that democracy is on its way out the door. 

The abstract noun definition helps us understand that democracy, like brilliance, is not something that you can experience through sensory actions, but do experience nonetheless. This one sentence shows an incredible contrast by utilizing abstract nouns that have absolutely nothing to do with each other! By reading through the use of just that first sentence, we begin to see the differences right away and start to ask: what is a concrete noun? What does concrete noun mean exactly? Then we do the same when asking: what is an abstract noun? This passage certainly takes a lot of words to say all of this, and it has a symbolically sad bird. When in doubt, add a sad bird. (Don’t actually do this.)

Are you still 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 Is an Abstract Noun and What Is the Abstract Noun Definition?

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, that you can’t experience abstract nouns through your five senses by the very abstract noun definition of being intangible. Perhaps your sixth sense, intuition, which is also an abstract noun, could help you explain them better! Here are some examples to answer “What are abstract nouns?” We use these every day without realizing it.

Abstract Noun Examples

Beauty Coldness Confidence Courage
Freedom Frustration Goodness Grace
Happiness Hatred Joy Love
Loyalty Parenthood Power Popularity

 

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 abstract noun hatred. To learn more about nominalization and morphology, consider this research for further reading.

Abstract nouns are inherently intangible; by abstract noun definition, abstract nouns are difficult to explain but are experienced by all. Part of answering what are abstract nouns, is their surreal quality.  Concrete nouns, in opposition, are tangible and experienced by the senses.  Abstract nouns 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 understanding what are abstract nouns in order to maximize 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 because this kind of research tends to be based in theory and proved with evidence via experimentation. We have plenty of tools and resources that can help you take some of the guesswork out of your formatting. Now that we have an answer to what are abstract nouns, we can move on to doing the same for what is a concrete noun.

What Is a Concrete Noun? 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 of hard to explain experiences of all humankind.

What is a concrete noun? What does concrete noun mean? 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, hear, touch, and taste.

To explore these definitions even further, check out this page.

Concrete Noun Examples

Rose Water Book Star
Friend Bird Judge Castle
Skull Guitar Forest Submarine
Venom Waterfall Doll Wizard

 

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, especially because by abstract noun definition, you can’t technically show something that only exists in the abstract, which you can appreciate now that you understand the answer to what is an abstract noun. 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 noun use in their writing. 

Understanding what does concrete noun mean and what does abstract noun mean is important because it explains the connotations of each. 

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, which suggests that abstract and concrete nouns and their associated language use 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 noun and adjective 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 answer to what does concrete noun mean by including the very one that becomes the main character you are more than likely familiar with: Scrooge. Concrete noun, abstract noun, concrete noun, abstract noun. It’s exhilarating.

Even Hemingway and Orwell, paragons of the specific, sought this balance of abstract vs concrete nouns to enhance their writing. When starting with a concrete noun, traveling up the ladder of abstraction expands upon the greater meaning and deepens the readers’ understanding of what are abstract nouns when paired with concrete nouns. In other words, this is a bottom-up process, building on a foundation of tangibles as its roots in the form of a concrete noun and continuing into abstract nouns. When an abstract noun comes first, moving up into the concrete will solidify the idea and give it branches after abstract nouns have their chance to force you as the reader into a state of imagination.

Consider abstract and concrete nouns the tiramisu and strawberry cheesecake of nouns, respectively: very different yet equally delicious desserts. Overindulge in either one, though, and you’ll end up with a stomach ache. Abstract and concrete nouns both have a place in your well-balanced diet. Now when asked: what is an abstract noun? What is a concrete noun? You’ll have an easy, edible answer.


Published March 5, 2019. Updated June 17, 2020.

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