Approaching language in these terms is valuable because it helps us recognize whatkinds of language are more likely to be understood and what kinds are more likely to bemisunderstood. The more abstract or general your language is, the more unclear and boringit will be. The more concrete and specific your language is, the more clear and vivid itwill be.
Examples of abstract terms include love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy,and any -ism (chauvinism, Communism, feminism, racism, sexism). These terms arefairly common and familiar, and because we recognize them we may imagine that weunderstand thembut we really can't, because the meanings won't stay still.
We experience the world first and most vividly through our senses. From the beginning,we sense hot, cold, soft, rough, loud. Our early words are all concrete: nose, hand, ear,cup, Mommy. We teach concrete terms: "Where's baby's mouth?" "Where'sbaby's foot?"not, "Where's baby's democracy?" Why is it that we turn toabstractions and generalizations when we write?
General terms and specific terms are not opposites, as abstract and concrete terms are;instead, they are the different ends of a range of terms. Generalterms refer to groups; specificterms refer to individualsbut there's room in between. Let's lookat an example.
If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms to concrete terms."We'll direct all our considerable resources to satisfying the needs of ourconstituents" sounds much better than "I'll spend $10 million of your taxes on anew highway that will help my biggest campaign contributor." But your goal as awriter is not to hide your real meanings, but to make them clear, so you'll work to usefewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.
Because on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it isvital to write a complete but concise description of your work to enticepotential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper. This articledescribes how to write a good computer architecture abstract for bothconference and journal papers. Writers should follow a checklist consisting of:motivation, problem statement, approach, results, and conclusions. Followingthis checklist should increase the chance of people taking the time to obtainand read your complete paper.
An abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of thepaper. It can't assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader into flipping throughlooking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It mustmake sense all by itself. Some points to consider include:
There are many ways to label or classify language as we learn to better controlitby levels, such as formal, informal, colloquial or slang; by tones, such as stiff,pompous, conversational, friendly, direct, impersonal; even by functions, such as noun,verb, adjective. I want to introduce you to a powerful way of classifyinglanguageby levels of abstraction or concreteness or generality or specificity (any oneof those four terms really implies the others).
Does this mean we shouldn't use abstract terms? Nowe need abstract terms. We need totalk about ideas and concepts, and we need terms that represent them. But we mustunderstand how imprecise their meanings are, how easily they can be differentlyunderstood, and how tiring and boring long chains of abstract terms can be. Abstract termsare useful and necessary when we want to name ideas (as we do in thesis statements andsome paragraph topic sentences), but they're not likely to make points clear orinteresting by themselves.
Concrete termsrefer to objects or events that are available to the senses. [This is directly opposite toabstract terms, which name things that are notavailable to the senses.] Examples of concrete terms include spoon, table, velvet eyepatch, nose ring, sinus mask, green, hot, walking. Because these terms refer toobjects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell, their meanings are prettystable. If you ask me what I mean by the word spoon, I can pick up a spoon andshow it to you. [I can't pick up a freedom and show it to you, or point to asmall democracy crawling along a window sill. I can measure sand and oxygen byweight and volume, but I can't collect a pound of responsibility or a liter of moraloutrage.]
While abstract terms like love change meaning with time and circumstances,concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hotand puppy mean pretty much the same to you now as they did when you were four.
You may think you understand and agree with me when I say, "We all wantsuccess." But surely we don't all want the same things. Success means differentthings to each of us, and you can't be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On theother hand, if I say "I want a gold Rolex on my wrist and a Mercedes in mydriveway," you know exactly what I mean (and you know whether you want the samethings or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and moreinteresting than abstract terms?
Your writing (whether it's in an essay, a letter, a memorandum, a report, anadvertisement, or a resume) will be clearer, more interesting, and better remembered if itis dominated by concrete and specific terms, and if it keeps abstract and general terms toa minimum. Go ahead and use abstract and general terms in your thesis statement and yourtopic sentences. But make the development concrete and specific.