On Concrete and Abstract Nouns

43

I’ve written previously about both the distinction and the importance of the distinction between concrete and abstract nouns. But there’s more on my mind about such things that I’d like to share.

An Oxymoron

I’ve always found the concept of abstract versus concrete nouns strange and somewhat confusing. After all, there is no grammatical difference between a concrete and an abstract noun. They function exactly the same way. Whether a noun is abstract or concrete is a purely stylistic consideration. This is because the difference depends not upon the word itself, but upon the object or concept the word refers to.

In fact, concrete noun is an oxymoron, and abstract noun is redundant. All nouns, as words, are abstractions. Words are ideas that we represent via sound or symbol. A word can be perceived by the senses, sort of — spoken words can be heard and written words can be seen, but they do not have physical existence. What makes a word a word is not that it can be pronounced or spelled, but that it has meaning, which is an abstraction. Bbupcvx, for example, is a grouping of letters, but not a word. It only becomes a word if I give it meaning. I can decide, for example, to name my pet pygmy marmoset Bbupcvx and, voila, it becomes a proper noun. But there is nothing concrete about the “word” Bbupcvx.

All this just shows that nouns, and words in general, are more than just lines on a page or collections of uttered sounds. They are lines and sounds that mean something. And that is a necessarily abstract idea.

So, in this sense, no noun can ever really be concrete. But that’s not what we mean by concrete noun anyway; we mean a noun that names something concrete, as opposed to an abstract noun, which is a noun that names something abstract.

I don’t like this blurring of sign and signified. I posted a video some time ago about how I learned that a noun isn’t “a person, place, thing, or idea” but “a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea” and that there is an important distinction between the two. A rose by any other name is still a rose, after all. A thing always has many names in various languages, yet the thing itself remains the same. A tree would be árbol, baum, derevo, or albero, if you are in Spain, Germany, Russian, or Italy respectively. A noun is a kind of word. I am not a noun, nor are you. Our individual names are nouns because they are words. But there are many people walking the earth convinced that they are nouns because they do not observe the distinction between a thing and its name.

Not as Easy as It Seems

Despite my objections, I accept the terms concrete and abstract nouns. They are what they are. And making the distinction is sometimes useful. Most nouns fortunately fit neatly into one category or the other. Popcorn, hummingbird, suitcase — these are all clearly concrete (Remember — the thing these words name is what is actually concrete). Justice, philanthropy, and Calvinism, on the other hand, are all obviously abstract.

There are many ways this gets tricky, however. And it all starts with how we define concrete. I was taught that concrete nouns were nouns that can be perceived by the senses. That works well enough for the examples above. But what about air, quark, or black hole? These things cannot be perceived with the senses. They are imperceptible and/or theoretical.

That’s why I like to think of concrete as meaning “having physical existence.” That way we don’t have to worry about our ability to perceive.

But what about Julius Caesar or Henry VIII? These guys don’t have physical existence. Not anymore anyway. What about dragon, cyclops, or hobbit? Imaginative creatures don’t have physical existence, right? But surely centaur better belongs in the category with horse and person than with nouns like honesty or anger. You have to forget about time and reality when grouping nouns. If centaurs were real, they would have physical existence, therefore the word centaur is a concrete noun. Abraham Lincoln once lived and breathed, therefore the name Abraham Lincoln is a concrete noun.

It seems to me there is a spectrum of concreteness. Abraham Lincoln is more concrete than president, which is a broader category and therefore more difficult to picture clearly. Man is even less concrete. Creature still less. Cheeseburger is much more concrete than food — which is so broad that it starts to take on symbolic meaning (e.g., food for thought, food for the soul, etc.) which pushes the word toward the borderline of abstract nouns.

Abstract Nouns

When asked to identify a noun as abstract or concrete, most people look for evidence of concreteness — typically using the five senses test. I find it easier to reverse the process. Abstract nouns name ideas, concepts, emotions. Intangible things. Words like winter or war confuse people because they seem so perceptible by the senses. You can see and feel winter, right? And war is clearly a visible, audible thing. But both winter and war are concepts. They are names given to a particular time of year or a particular violent disposition of one group to another. What you see is not actually winter or war. What you see, feel, and hear is simply evidence of an abstract concept. Snow and frost isn’t winter — it’s evidence of winter. And charging armies, tanks, planes, and explosions are evidence of war, not war itself.

This still doesn’t always simplify things, however. A university is fundamentally an idea. But it can also be a place with physical existence. Art is also a concept, but it’s also possible to refer to a particular work as art, in which case the word becomes concrete. So, context often matters.

Where Grammar and Theology Meet

With some words, I just throw my hands up. Is soul a concrete or abstract noun? Is a soul a real thing with physical existence? Merely an idea? I tend to think of the immortal human soul as a real thing, though without physical existence. That makes it more concrete than abstract. But if we are talking about a musician playing with soul, I think that’s an abstract idea. But if you disagree in either case, fine. It doesn’t matter. There is no authority to look to here.

And since I have wandered into theological realms, let me point out that there is at least one reason to care about this concrete/abstract distinction when it comes to spiritual matters. A common point of perplexity among Christians (and non-Christians too, I assume) is the idea of evil. “Why,” I have often heard people ask, “did God create evil?” This, by the way, was a question that plagued even the brilliant Augustine.

My answer has long been, “He didn’t.” To many, that sounds blasphemous, since they believe God created everything. But that’s my point. God created every thing. Everything that exists. Evil does not exist. I mean evil does not have physical existence. It is a concept. It has no shape or substance. It is the name we have given to the opposite of goodness or virtue, neither of which exist either in a physical sense. God created the world and all that is in it. But ideas are in the realm of the mind and were not created. The fact that there is no grammatical distinction between concrete and abstract nouns makes it difficult for us to think of them differently. We can say, coffee is good and love is good and there is no grammatical difference. But coffee exists physically and love does not. We can even say “God created marriage” but we are being figurative when we say that. He did not cause it to come into existence in the same way he caused rocks, birds and trees to come into existence.

I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that thinking of evil as tangible things that exist in the same way goldfish and cucumbers exist can have some confusing and maybe even harmful consequences. I know this is a bit beyond my usual sphere on this blog, but I’m curious about your responses. Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. here
    here03-22-2017

    Perfect work you have done, this internet site is really cool with wonderful information.

  2. progressive insurance
    progressive insurance03-21-2017

    I appreciate for great feedback which truthfully designate checking emergent conclusions. The best possibility to make up rates is free quotes comparison process that provides the cheapest offers on home and auto insurance policy by zip code against high insurers in US.

  3. buy android reviews
    buy android reviews03-19-2017

    You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I will recommend this site!

  4. buy reviews
    buy reviews03-19-2017

    Thanks a lot for sharing this with all folks you really recognize what you are speaking approximately! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally talk over with my web site =). We will have a hyperlink alternate agreement among us!

  5. personal trainer near me in Pasadena California
    personal trainer near me in Pasadena California03-18-2017

    Hey! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any trouble with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing months of hard work due to no backup. Do you have any methods to prevent hackers?

  6. private photo sharing app
    private photo sharing app03-18-2017

    Awesome blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple adjustements would really make my blog jump out. Please let me know where you got your design. Bless you

  7. google photos storage
    google photos storage03-17-2017

    Hi , I do believe this is an excellent blog. I stumbled upon it on Yahoo , i will come back once again. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and help other people.

  8. one world round the world planner
    one world round the world planner03-17-2017

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all of us you actually know what you are talking about! Bookmarked. Kindly also visit my website =). We could have a link exchange arrangement between us!

  9. cheap home insurance quotes
    cheap home insurance quotes03-17-2017

    I appreciate regarding great overlook that truthfully help in getting unexplored conclusions. The best feature to apply quote that is cheaper compare that provides the best offers on home insurance from high ratings agent from the US.

  10. things to do today template
    things to do today template03-17-2017

    Hello my friend! I want to say that this post is awesome, nice written and include approximately all significant infos. I would like to see more posts like this.

  11. best travel channels
    best travel channels03-17-2017

    I really like your writing style, wonderful information, appreciate it for posting :D . “Inquiry is fatal to certainty.” by Will Durant.

  12. list of fun things to do
    list of fun things to do03-16-2017

    As a Newbie, I am continuously browsing online for articles that can help me. Thank you

  13. eurotrip planner
    eurotrip planner03-16-2017

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for great info I was looking for this info for my mission.

  14. home insurance quotes
    home insurance quotes03-16-2017

    I appreciate regarding natural feedback that truthfully promote obtaining new definitions. The best possibility to receive quotes goes cheaper process which gives the cheapest deals for home and auto insurance from top rated agents located in US.

  15. Landlords buildings insurance
    Landlords buildings insurance03-16-2017

    Thanks regarding clear info that plainly help on checking new concepts. The better feature to get quotes goes cheapest comparison tool that provides the best offers for renters insurance provided by good known agents from the US.

  16. property for sale
    property for sale03-16-2017

    My programmer is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the costs. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using Movable-type on a variety of websites for about a year and am nervous about switching to another platform. I have heard good things about blogengine.net. Is there a way I can import all my wordpress content into it? Any help would be really appreciated!

  17. legit work from home companies
    legit work from home companies03-15-2017

    Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! However, how can we communicate?

  18. Learn English - Learn to Change
    Learn English - Learn to Change03-15-2017

    I have been exploring for a little bit for any high-quality articles or blog posts on this kind of space . Exploring in Yahoo I finally stumbled upon this web site. Studying this info So i am happy to express that I’ve an incredibly good uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed. I so much for sure will make sure to do not omit this site and provides it a look on a continuing basis.

  19. medical jobs
    medical jobs03-15-2017

    I like the valuable information you provide for your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and take a look at again here regularly. I am moderately certain I’ll be informed a lot of new stuff proper right here! Good luck for the next!

  20. tekken 3
    tekken 303-14-2017

    It’s laborious to find educated people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  21. law of attraction
    law of attraction03-14-2017

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself? Plz reply back as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to know wheere u got this from. thanks

  22. Lowest cost home insurance
    Lowest cost home insurance03-14-2017

    Thanks for clear feedbacks which directly designate checking novel provisitions. The better feature to apply quotes is free compare which provides the cheapest deals on auto insurance policies provided from high agent in USA.

  23. Geico insurance
    Geico insurance03-13-2017

    I wish to say thank you for nice info that plainly designate choosing novel positions. The better possibility to make up rates that is cheapest quotes comparison process which provides the cheapest deals on renter insurance coverage provided from top rated companies such as geico from the US.

  24. Low auto insurance quotes
    Low auto insurance quotes03-12-2017

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  25. make money online 2017
    make money online 201703-08-2017

    As a Newbie, I am continuously searching online for articles that can aid me. Thank you

  26. Global Removalist
    Global Removalist03-08-2017

    I will right away take hold of your rss feed as I can’t to find your email subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you have any? Please permit me recognize in order that I may subscribe. Thanks.

  27. home decoration ideas
    home decoration ideas03-06-2017

    You completed a number of good points there. I did a search on the topic and found mainly persons will consent with your blog.

  28. cheap blenders
    cheap blenders03-06-2017

    Excellent web site. Plenty of helpful info here. I?¦m sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you for your sweat!

  29. Rene Barro
    Rene Barro03-05-2017

    This is a very good tips especially to those new to blogosphere, brief and accurate information… Thanks for sharing this one. A must read article.

  30. Fidel Skillman
    Fidel Skillman03-03-2017

    I simply must tell you that you have written an excellent and unique article that I really enjoyed reading. I’m fascinated by how well you laid out your material and presented your views. Thank you.

  31. Gus Andren
    Gus Andren03-03-2017

    Finding the Right Immigration Solicitor… [...]below you’ll find the link to some sites that we think you should visit[...]…

  32. Rashida Craft
    Rashida Craft03-03-2017

    Great site. Thank you for sharing.

  33. Tory Mouw
    Tory Mouw03-03-2017

    Great site. Thank you for posting

  34. Georgia Nuckoles
    Georgia Nuckoles03-03-2017

    I really got into this post. I found it to be interesting and loaded with unique points of interest. I like to digest material that makes me think. ThanksThank you for writing this great content.

  35. Gus Andren
    Gus Andren03-03-2017

    I really like your article. It’s evident that you have a lot knowledge on this topic. Your points are well made and relatable. Thanks for writing engaging and interesting material.

  36. Cookie
    Cookie10-23-2014

    Wow. Thank you.

  37. Tate Antrim
    Tate Antrim06-03-2013

    Brian this is a very interesting post. Especially the last few paragraphs as you look at this theologically. Jesus said that the contents of the heart, that is the character of the person, is known by what comes out of their mouth. In the abstract, the speech and the words uttered and written by a person define the concrete. This post has very profound application when we look at the fall of man as narrated in Genesis 3 and the results as applied to all human posterity following Adam and Eve by natural means.

    I’ve been studying the Westminster Catechism, shorter and larger versions, for several years. The shorter version is geared towards teaching classic, orthodox Christian doctrine to children while the larger version is geared towards adults and instructing them in the faith once given to the saints. For many years I have wondered about assumptions in the texts of both versions and after reading this post of yours I believe I may have found answers to my questions. I believe we have a profound and very damaging ignorance about words and meanings. I also believe that this ignorance is promulgated by those who would radically transform us as a people and have us espouse the emptiness of humanism built on a frame of flowering words and romantic prose. The framers of the Westminster confession, didn’t need to explain assumptions because they and their readers (even the children who would be learning from the shorter catechism by the efforts of their parents) understood this difference between concrete and abstract in theology because they had a sollid Biblical base. Today we don’t have this knowledge, don’t or won’t teach it or we just don’t grasp it anymore. Our language and words have become rather profane in all spheres of life.

    I’ve just recently started reading Francis Shaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” and Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” again and your post profoundly amplifies what both of these fellows are writing about as one considers the concrete and the abstract in these two books. I don’t know if you are any sort of Christian but would recommend that you also take a look at these two books whether you are or not. I’ve long believed that one of Satan’s greatest weapons against us in his arts is that which denigrates language. We can see everywhere that the use of language spoken, written or symbolized, expresses the ideas of the mind and intents of the heart and can move people to all manner of “evil” in the concrete and the abstract.

    Again a very interesting and thought provoking post. My wife said this one could easily createa pretzel in the mind when one actually starts to tear it apart critically (abstractly speaking in the sense of earnest contemplation – not that it’s bad – but you probably already surmised that).

    Thanks

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-03-2013

      Wow. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tate. I am a Christian and have read “How Should We Then Live” several times. I am familiar with Machen as well, but have not read “Christianity and Liberalism.” I’ll add it to my list.

      • Tate Antrim
        Tate Antrim06-03-2013

        I thought so – someone who isn’t would not be able to connect it the way you did in your post. My wife is an aspiring novelist and has found much in your blog posts to encourage her and she sent this to me earlier today and we had an email conversation about it. You will like Machen’s book very much – it’s a small book but a tough read (it will take me several reads to absorb it I’m sure).

        Coram Deo

  38. Thea Bezuidenhout
    Thea Bezuidenhout06-03-2013

    I love this post Brian! Think it is brilliant. Likewise darkness does not exist, because it is just the absence of light, and evil has no substance, it is the absence of good. God created light and not darkness. Everything He created was ‘good’ but the possibility of evil came automatically into existence whenever good was absent. Thank you for teaching! I love language. Dutch is my mother tongue and now I’m in South Africa and speak the Afrikaans language. I learned to speak German as well. I enjoy this site! Blessings!

  39. Heidi @ Mt Hope
    Heidi @ Mt Hope06-03-2013

    Well, I was close until I started second guessing! I enjoyed the post. Thanks!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-03-2013

      Remember, Heidi, there’s lots of room for disagreement here. I find it helpful to think that some words are “more concrete” than others rather than drawing hard lines. There seems to be a lot of gray here.

      Thanks for the encouragement.

Leave a Reply

If you like a post, please take a second to click "like," and comment as often as you like.
We promise not to correct your grammar!