Language is more abstract than you think, or, why aren"t languages more iconic?

This page was written by John Friedlander, associate professor in the English department at SouthwestTennessee Community College. It is used here with his permission.

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IntroductionLanguage may be our most powerful tool. We use it to lớn understvà our world throughlistening and reading, và lớn communicate our own feelings, needs and desires throughspeaking and writing. With svào language skills, we have a much better chance ofunderstanding & being understood, và of getting what we want & need from those aroundus.

There are many ways to label or classify language as we learn lớn better controlit—by 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 sầu. I want to lớn introduce you lớn a powerful way of classifyinglanguage—by levels of abstraction or concreteness or generality or specifiđô thị (any oneof those four terms really implies the others).

Approaching language in these terms is valuable because it helps us recognize whatkinds of language are more likely lớn be understood and what kinds are more likely lớn bemisunderstood. The more abstract or general your language is, the more unclear & boringit will be. The more concrete và specific your language is, the more clear and vivid itwill be.

Let"s look at these different types of language. Abstract và Concrete TermsAbstract terms refer khổng lồ ideas or concepts; they have sầu no physical referents.

Examples of abstract terms include love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy,và any -ism (chauvinism, Communism, feminism, racism, sexism). These terms arefairly comtháng & familiar, & because we recognize them we may imagine that weunderstvà them—but we really can"t, because the meanings won"t stay still.

Take love as an example. You"ve heard & used that word since you were threeor four years old. Does it mean to lớn you now what it meant lớn you when you were five? whenyou were ten? when you were fourteen (!)? I"m sure you"ll tóm tắt my certainty that the wordchanges meaning when we marry, when we divorce, when we have children, when we look backat lost parents or spouses or children. The word stays the same, but the meaning keepschanging.

If I say, "love sầu is good," you"ll probably assume that you understvà, & beinclined lớn agree with me. You may change your mind, though, if you realize I mean that"prostitution should be legalized" .

How about freedom? The word is familiar enough, but when I say, "I wantfreedom," what am I talking about? divorce? self-employment? summer vacation?paid-off debts? my own car? looser pants? The meaning of freedom won"t staystill. Look bachồng at the other examples I gave sầu you, và you"ll see the same sorts ofproblems.

Does this mean we shouldn"t use abstract terms? No—we need abstract terms. We need totalk about ideas & concepts, & we need terms that represent them. But we mustunderst& how imprecise their meanings are, how easily they can be differentlyunderstood, & how tiring và boring long chains of abstract terms can be. Abstract termsare useful and necessary when we want lớn name ideas (as we bởi 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 lớn the senses. abstract terms, which name things that are notavailable to lớn 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 piông chồng up a spoon andshow it to you. freedom và show it khổng lồ you, or point khổng lồ asmall democracy crawling along a window sill. I can measure s& and oxyren byweight và volume, but I can"t collect a pound of responsibility or a liter of moraloutrage.>

While abstract terms lượt thích love change meaning with time & circumstances,concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hotpuppy mean pretty much the same lớn you now as they did when you were four.

You may think you understand và agree with me when I say, "We all wantsuccess." But surely we don"t all want the same things. Success means differentthings to lớn each of us, và you can"t be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On theother h&, if I say "I want a gold Rolex on my wrist và a Mercedes in mydriveway," you know exactly what I mean (và you know whether you want the samethings or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and moreinteresting than abstract terms?

If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms lớn concrete terms."We"ll direct all our considerable resources lớn satisfying the needs of ourconstituents" sounds much better than "I"ll spkết thúc $10 million of your taxes on anew highway that will help my biggest chiến dịch contributor." But your goal as awriter is not khổng lồ hide your real meanings, but lớn make them clear, so you"ll work khổng lồ usefewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.

General và Specific TermsGeneral terms và specific terms are not opposites, as abstract & concrete terms are;instead, they are the different ends of a range of terms. Generalterms refer to lớn groups; specificterms refer khổng lồ individuals—but there"s room in between. Let"s lookat an example.

Furniture is a general term; it includes within it many different items. If Iask you to form an image of furniture, it won"t be easy to lớn vị. Do you see a departmentstore display room? a dining room? an office? Even if you can produce a distinct image inyour mind, how likely is it that another reader will khung a very similar image? Furnitureis a concrete term (it refers to something we can see and feel), but its meaning is stillhard khổng lồ pin down, because the group is so large. Do you have positive or negative feelingstoward furniture? Again, it"s hard to develop much of a response, because thegroup represented by this general term is just too large.

We can make the group smaller with the less general term, chair. This is stillpretty general (that is, it still refers khổng lồ a group rather than an individual), but it"seasier to picture a chair than it is to picture furniture.

Shift next khổng lồ rocking chair.

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Now the image is getting clearer, và it"s easierto form an attitude toward the thing. The images we khung are likely to lớn be fairly similar,and we"re all likely to lớn have some similar associations (comfort, relaxation, calm), sothis less general or more specific term communicates more clearly than the more general orless specific terms before it.

We can become more và more specific. It can be a La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner. Itcan be a green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner. It can be a lime green velvetLa-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jellydoughnut pressed into the baông xã edge of the seat cushion. By the time we get lớn thelast description, we have surely reached the individual, a single chair. lưu ý how easy itis to visualize this chair, & how much attitude we can form about it.

The more you rely on general terms, the more your writing is likely lớn be vague anddull. As your language becomes more specific, though, your meanings become clearer andyour writing becomes more interesting.

Does this mean you have to cram your writing with loads of detailed description? No.First, you don"t always need modifiers to identify an individual: Bill Clintonand Mother Teresa are specifics; so are Bob"s Camaro and the wart onZelda"s chin. Second, not everything needs to be individual: sometimes we need toknow that Fred sat in a chair, but we don"t care what the chair looked lượt thích.

Summing UpIf you think bachồng to lớn what you"ve just read, chances are you"ll most easily rethành viên andmost certainly underst& the gold Rolex, the Mercedes, and the lime green La-Z-Boyrocker-recliner. Their meanings are clear và they bring images with them (we more easilyrehotline things that are linked with a sense impression, which is why it"s easier toremember learning how lớn ride a bike or swyên ổn than it is lớn remember learning about thecauses of the Civil War).

We experience the world first & most vividly through our senses. From the beginning,we sense hot, cold, soft, rough, loud. Our early words are all concrete: nose, h&, 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?

I think part of it is that we"re trying to lớn offer ideas or conclusions. We"ve workedhard for them, we"re proud of them, they"re what we want to cốt truyện. After Mary tells youthat you"re her best friend, you hear her tell Margaret that she really hates you. Mrs.Warner promises to lớn pay you extra for raking her lawn after cutting it, but when you"refinished she says it should be part of the original price, & she won"t give you thepromised money. Your dad promises khổng lồ piông xã you up at four o"cloông xã, but leaves you standinglượt thích a fool on the corner until after six. Your boss promises you a promotion, then givesit instead to lớn his boss"s nephew. From these and more specific experiences, you learn thatyou can"t always trust everytoàn thân. Do you tell your child those stories? More probably youjust tell your child, "You can"t always trust everybody toàn thân."

It took a lot of concrete, specific experiences to teach you that lesson, but you tryto lớn pass it on with a few general words. You may think you"re doing it right, giving yourchild the lesson without the hurt you went through. But the hurts teach the lesson, notthe general terms. "You can"t always trust everybody" may be a fine main ideafor an essay or paragraph, và it may be all that you want your child or your reader tograsp—but if you want to lớn make that lesson clear, you"ll have to give your child or yourreader the concrete, specific experiences.

What principles discussed on this page are at work in the following excerpt from Jeff Bigger"s essay, Searching for El Chapareke?
HIS WAS THE DAY the canyon walls of Cusarare, a Tarahumara Indian village tucked inlớn the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua in northern Mexiteo, bloomed with women in colorful skirts, legions of children trailed by dogs, men in their trắng shirts và sombreros, all cascading down the pencil-thin trails toward the plaza. The women — shifting babies saddled on their backs in rebozos — sat in groups by the mission walls, wordless for hours, drinking the weekly Coke, watching as the faithful went to attend mass, young men shot hoops, và the older men hovered around benches at the baông chồng of the plaza, waiting for the weekly outdoor meeting of the community cooperative sầu. Pigs wandered down the road in idle joy, và the dogs fought on cue outside the small siêu thị.

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You can check out this principle in the textbooks you read and the lectures you listenkhổng lồ. If you find yourself bored or confused, chances are you"re getting generalizations andabstractions. You"ll find your interest & your understanding increasewhen the author or teacher starts offering specifics. One of the most useful questions youcan ask of an unclear presentation (including your own) is, "Can you give sầu mean example?"

Your writing (whether it"s in an essay, a letter, a memorandum, a report, anadvertisement, or a resume) will be clearer, more interesting, và better remembered if itis dominated by concrete & specific terms, & if it keeps abstract and general terms toa minimum. Go ahead & use abstract and general terms in your thesis statement & yourtopic sentences. But make the development concrete và specific.

A Final chú ý Pointing ElsewhereSometimes students think that this discussion of types of language is about vocabulary,but it"s not. You don"t need a fancy vocabulary to come up with bent spoon or limpingdog or Mary told Margaret she hates me. It"s not about imagination, either.If you have sầu reached any kind of a reasoned conclusion, you must have sầu had or read about orheard about relevant experiences. Finding concrete specifics doesn"t require a bigvocabulary or a vivid imagination, just the willingness to lớn recall what you already know.If you really can"t find any examples or specifics to support your general conclusion,chances are you don"t really know what you"re talking about (và we are all guilty of thatmore than we care lớn admit).

Where vày these concrete specifics emerge in the writing process? You should gathermany concrete specifics in the prewriting steps of invention và discovery. If youhave many concrete specifics at hvà before you organize or draft, you"re likelylớn think và write more easily and accurately. It"s easier to lớn write well when you"recloser khổng lồ knowing what you"re talking about.

You will certainly come up with more concrete specifics as you draft, và more as yourevise, and maybe still more as you edit. But you"ll be a better writer if you can gathersome concrete specifics at the very start.

After you have read và thought about this material, you should have sầu a fairly clearidea of what concrete specifics are và why you want them. Your next step will be topractice.

Chuyên mục: literature