linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
People usually think of nouns as the names of people, places, or objects you can see or touch - things you can draw or photograph. Think about handlebars, rabbit, lemonade, London, toenails, and (you may not know her) Millicent Twiglet. These are the concrete nouns of the language. But there are many nouns in English which aren’t like this, because they refer to ideas, concepts, and other notions that can’t be observed or measured. These are the abstract nouns - value, idea, verb, certainty, assistance, and thousands more.
In a book about language, I have to use a large number of abstract nouns. On the other hand, if I were writing a description of a country scene, I’d be using many concrete nouns. So when you study the style of a piece of writing, keep an eye open for the differences. You’ll find that a ‘concrete style’ (one with lots of concrete nouns in it) reads very differently from an ‘abstract style’ (one with lots of abstract nouns in it). In the world of newspapers, for instance, the Sun prefers concrete nouns, whereas the Independent uses more abstract nouns.
But beware! Some nouns can be abstract in one usage and concrete in another. Music is abstract in I adore music, but in I’ve brought my music it’s concrete. And don’t worry if you find some nouns that you can’t make up your mind about. Smell, in your sense of smell, is abstract, but is it still abstract in There’s an awful smell in here? You can’t see it or measure it, but you certainly know it’s there. You can argue about this kind of thing for ages - but open the window first!

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