Concreteness and Abstraction

Abstract words signify things that cannot be directly perceived: honor, for instance, is an abstract word, as are generosity or idea or democracy. Concrete words refer to perceptible things: a rose, a clap of thunder, the odor of violets.

No hard-and-fast distinction exists between abstract and concrete. Often it is a matter of degree. Depending on its context the same term may now be used abstractly, now concretely, like rose in these sentences:

CONCRETE On the hall table a single yellow tea rose stood in a blue vase. LESS CONCRETE Roses were growing in the garden. ABSTRACT The rose family includes many varieties.

The closer a word comes to naming a single, unique object the more concrete it is. When diction moves from the specific and perceptible to the general and imperceptible, it becomes abstract.

Do not suppose that abstract diction is necessarily a fault.

If you deal with ideas, abstraction is inevitable. The following sentence is clear and concise, and almost all of its important words are abstract, yet they are essential to its clarity:

All too often the debate about the place, purpose, and usefulness of films as a means of instruction is clouded by confusion, defen-siveness, and ignorance. Sol Worth

Even when dealing with ideas, however, wise writers do not stay too long on high levels of abstraction, especially if aiming at readers who do not share their expertise. They know that many readers find it hard to enjoy or understand words remote from the eyes and ears. Occasionally; they make us "see" and "hear" ideas by using images in the form of examples, analogies, similes, or metaphors. In the following case the abstract the meeting of extremes is dull—is given concrete, visual reality in the image,1 "a very flat country":

It is often said truly, though perhaps not understood rightly, that extremes meet. But the strange thing is that extremes meet, not so much in being extraordinary, as in being dull. The country where the East and West are one, is a very flat country. c. K. Chesterton

And in the following description of a Japanese train crew, notice how the abstract terms "trim" and "dapper" are made perceptible:

Everything about them is trim and dapper; the stylized flourishes of the white gloved guard, for instance, as he waves the flag for the train to start from Sano station, or the precise unfumbling way the conductor, in equally clean white gloves, clips one's ticket, arms slightly raised, ticket held at the correct angle and correct distance from the body, clipper engaged and operated in a sharp single movement. Ronald P. Dore

1. An image is a word that refers to something we can sense—that is, see, hear, touch, and so on. See pages 231 ff. for a fuller discussion.

If unrelieved abstraction can be a fault even when writing about abstract subjects, it is a far worse fault when writing about a subject that is not abstract at all. When you describe what you see and hear, touch and taste, use the most specific, concrete words you know:

TOO ABSTRACT The large coves are surrounded by various buildings.

MORE CONCRETE The large coves are surrounded by summer cottages, boat houses, and piers jutting into the water.

EVEN BETTER The large coves are surrounded by summer cot tages, trimly painted, with bright red and blue and green shutters; by boat houses, a few seeming about to slide into the lake, but most still used and well-maintained; and by piers jutting into the water, in good repair with sturdy railings, from which hang clean white life-rings.

Inexperienced writers often complain, "I haven't anything to write about." There's plenty to write about; all you have to do is look and listen.

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