Concrete & Abstract Word Choices

How to Improve Writing Skills with the Best Mix

Concrete or abstract word: which is better? The answer is, you need both. Find out how the ladder of abstraction helps you get the right balance between abstract and concrete words.

Start with a Theme or Idea

Abstract words deal with thoughts, feelings or qualities: for example, freedom, equality, love, anger, danger, wisdom, power, beauty. These words convey broad general concepts and are good for setting out your main idea(s). However, because they leave only a vague impression, readers may find it hard to get a grip on your meaning. You therefore need to flesh them out with concrete words.

Balance Abstract and Concrete Words to Give a Clearer Picture

Concrete words are those that appeal to our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell: for example, rainbow, eagle, thunder, silk, cream, coffee. Concrete words can evoke powerful images.

Let's look at how John Keats sets out his main idea with an abstract word (fruitfulness) and builds on it with concrete words:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

(From Ode to Autumn by John Keats)

Concrete and Abstract Word Variations: the Ladder of Abstraction

In writing, the ladder of abstraction refers to the way words are arranged in ascending levels, each level getting progressively more abstract. The higher you go up the ladder, therefore, the more abstract and general the words; conversely, the lower the level, the more concrete and specific they become.

For example, at level one (the lowest) we would find the most specific words like Labrador puppy, chocolate chip cookies and Harley Davidson motorbike. One rung above this, the words would still be concrete but less specific: puppy, cookies, motorbike; the next level would perhaps contain words like pet, food, vehicle.

Replace Abstract Words with Concrete Words

Most often writing fails to capture the reader's attention because it contains too many abstract words; the writing becomes bland and vague.

Arouse the reader's senses. Use more concrete words than abstract ones. For example, if we say He got off his vehicle and gave his pet some food readers will have only a hazy picture of what we mean; but if we're more specific, the image becomes clearer: Captain Hook got off his Harley Davidson motorbike and gave his black Labrador puppy two chocolate chip cookies.

From Abstract to Concrete Words: Moving Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction

Good writers move up and down the ladder of abstraction, using abstract words for a broad-brush approach and filling in the details with concrete words - as in these examples:

St Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass...

(From The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats)

She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam.
(From The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

A handsome, well-made powerful youngster he was; with eyes that sparkled like the red-hot droppings from a furnace fire.
(From The Chimes by Charles Dickens)

Connect Abstract Words with Concrete Imagery

Give the reader something to see, hear or feel - concrete images that reflect or symbolize the abstract word. One good way of doing this is by using similes and metaphors, as in these examples:

Cold (abstract word) as the spray of the rock-beating surf (concrete words and image).
(From The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron)

Secret, and self-contained, and solitary (abstract words) as an oyster (concrete word and image).
(From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow (concrete words and image) of death (abstract word)...
(From The Bible, Psalm 23: 4a)

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength (abstract word); they shall soar on wings as eagles (concrete words and image).
(From The Bible, Isaiah 40:31)

For more on Similes and Metaphors, go to Figurative Language.

For more tips on how to write with clarity, precision and power, go to How to Improve Writing Skills.

For more creative writing tips, go to:
Connotation Denotation Synergy
Vivid, Powerful Verbs
Secrets of Great Authors
Word Music
Sentence Structure Secrets

Return from Concrete & Abstract Word Choices to Creative Writing: Write to Win Hearts.

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