Concrete and Abstract Ideas

One of my favorite lessons to teach has to be about concrete and abstract nouns. It’s not that it’s this super-complicated concept or anything; I think it has to do with how fundamental and misunderstood the differences are.

Concrete nouns are the nouns that we are probably most familiar with: the ones that we can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Table, water, leaf, chili, and concrete are all concrete nouns.

Abstract nouns are the ones that are a little, well, abstract. They can’t be necessarily experienced sensorily. They are emotions, feelings, and qualities. Hatred, love, anger, inspiration, and religion are all abstract.

What is always fascinating to me is how one would go about describing an abstract noun to someone else. What is hatred? Think about that for a second. If you were to answer it, how could you do it in a way that you would guarantee that I’d understand what you are talking about?

Love might even be the best example of this. When you talk about love, I have no idea what kind you are talking about. Hell, even romantic love is probably different from me to you. Love meant something different to me three years ago (before the birth of my son), which brings me to another quality of abstract nouns: their meanings can change over time.

When having my past students explain to me what a certain abstract noun was, it was always entertaining to see the responses. Of course, there would always be a student or two who tried to define the terms with idioms (“Love is knowing you’ll always be taken care of”), and I would always mark on the paper, telling them to try again, this time using concrete nouns to contextualize the term, making it more definable.

And each quarter, a student or two will stumble upon the real meaning of the assignment, which is probably too philosophical to actually mean anything anyway: abstract nouns gain meaning only when seen through a subjective lens. Concrete nouns? Those are easy. If I point to a table, and we all see the table, we could all write up a descriptive paragraph or two about it. But if I were to ask about love, no two submissions would be the same.

Love—that word, the word that gets thrown around more than many other words, has no objective, concrete meaning. It has relative meaning, and it has subjective meaning, but without more information, I don’t know what it is for you.

Look at the word happiness. What does it mean for you? Think about that for a second, and see how it was co-opted in a couple of ads:










I’m not sure that they know what happiness is for me, and yes, it could be that by using this word, they are letting me interpret its meaning for myself or something. I’d agree on the Coke ad, but not the second one. In it, you have an actual thing being equated with happiness: pearls. The natural conclusion is that money = happiness (and for some people that is totally true). For others, not so much.

Confusing abstract concepts with assumptions can happen with advertisements, true, but it can also creep into your newspapers, blog articles, editorials, and even your daily conversations. The trick is to keep an eye and/or ear out for them, so we can choose whether or not to agree with them.

Oh yeah, and love? Well, now you know that it’s a piece of technology. That’s pink. And Pink.


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