[Friday 25 January, 2013]
This distinction has been around a very long time, and you’ll often find the terms used in impressionistic studies of style; but you won’t always find it a very easy distinction to work with in a systematic way. The trouble is, there are many uncertain cases where you just can’t be sure whether the noun is abstract or concrete. Go through some pages of a dictionary, and you’ll find several cases. Different senses can confuse the issue (as in the music and smell examples), but even in cases where the sense is clear, there can be problems (is guideline abstract or concrete? is neighbourhood? is Spanish?). The traditional definition focuses on the visual and the tactile senses as the criteria for concreteness, leaving nouns for sound, smell, and taste in a somewhat uncertain state (how would you rate remark, for instance?). Metaphorical uses also complicate the issue (That place is a dump) as do idioms (on guard).
Having said all that, there are nonetheless many clear cases. Look out especially for the use of suffixes which form abstract or concrete nouns. Abstract suffixes include -age (mileage), -al (refusal), -(a)tion (foundation), -dom (kingdom), -(e)ry (slavery), -ful (glassful), -hood (boyhood), -ing (farming), -ism (idealism), -ity (rapidity), -ment (amazement), -ness (kindness), -ocracy (democracy), -ship (friendship). There are fewer concrete suffixes, and only -er is really creative: -ant (contestant), -ee (payee), -eer (profiteer), -er (singer), -ess (waitress), -ette (kitchenette), -let (piglet), -ling (duckling), -ster (gangster).
An interesting exercise is to try identifying ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ styles in uses of language. There are very few contexts which are just one or the other. Most uses are mixed, and we can at best talk about a predominantly abstract style. What actually happens in newspapers, magazines, radio talks. TV news, and so on? How abstract (concrete) are school textbooks, for instance? What happens in a political speech, or on a CD cover? Ask students what their expectations are (there won’t always be agreement), and then investigate.
RG 30; SGE 5.1; CGEL 5.3, App I.32-7