Questioning the Rules: Specific and Concrete Words

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Regardless of whether you are writing a letter to your mother, a police report about a hit and run accident, or instructions on how to dress a turkey, your intent is to convey meaning. General and abstract writing require your readers to interpret what you say. Frequent use of general writing makes your writing dull and grey.   Descriptive writing, on the other hand, touches your readers’ senses. It lures them to what you want them to see, hear or feel. Specific and concrete terms are some of the most valuable items in a writer’s tool box. However, general and abstract terms also have value and should not be removed from the toolbox.

General Words vs Specific Words

General and specific words represent a descriptive continuum. General words are broad, all-inclusive and sweeping in scope. They are the expansive view as you look down from a mountain vista. Specific words narrow that view down to precise items within that scope.   Your choice of between general and specific depends on the precision needed in the scene.

Take, for example, the family who is looking for a pet. The child wants a dog, a four legged animal that runs, barks, wags his tail and licks the child’s face. The husband is resigned to the idea of a dog, but prefers a smaller, active terrier.  The wife wants a Yorkie, and nothing else will do. The specificity of a pet changes with each character’s point of view. The steadfast rule to always choose specific words over general, is a generality in itself. Some other words that illustrate this the continuum of general to specific terms include:

General Somewhat Specific Very Specific
Food McDonalds Big Mac
Person Female Grandmother
Car Ford Mustang
Abstract Word vs Concrete Word

Abstract and concrete words do not represent a continuum.  Rather, they are two separate and unique perceptions. Abstract words are concepts or ideas, broad and squishy. They can be qualities, traits, emotions, or any other intangible thing that cannot be described with one of our senses—cannot be seen, heard, tasted, felt or smelled. Use the word Love as an example. What does love mean to you? Does it mean the same thing now as it did when you were 5 years old? Is loving a puppy the same as loving chocolate or loving the boy next door? Abstract words allow the reader’s experience to frame the point. Some other abstract words frequently used in our writing include democracy, success, strength, and charity. They are vague concepts, open for individual interpretation.

Concrete words, on the other hand, represent specific actions or objects. They are tangible, observable and measurable items that appeal to our senses. They tell us who, what, when, where, or how. Aside from the word “no,” they include the first words we learn to speak as a child: bottle, mommy, toy. They are universally understood. Green in Miami is still green in Anchorage.   While concrete words can vary in degrees, such as forest green versus lime green, the word green is universally understood.

What Type of Word to Use

As we study the art of writing, a fundamental skill is learning when to use specific and concrete words and when to use the more general and abstract terms. Vivid is always better than vague. Or is it? As described above, the degree of specificity needed determines whether to use a general or specific word. Can the family want a dog but buy a Yorkie? Absolutely! It all depends on how the author wants to illustrate each person’s point of view.

There are a few things to consider when determining the words we choose.

  • Specific may be inappropriate when a character’s point of view or knowledge has not been defined. For the boy being brought up in an apartment in the city, his new suburban house has a big tree in the back yard.  It may be a towering oak, but if looking at it from the boy’s point of view, it’s a big tree.
  • Specific might detract from the dominant impression the author is trying to convey. When describing the beauty of the woman’s hands, it could be distracting to call detailed attention to the table on which it rests.
  • An abstract concept is often a perfect lead in for a concrete image. The abstract mention of the old veteran’s patriotism might precede the description of his adoration for the red white and blue.
  • A concrete image may not be appropriate for the intended audience. A children’s book on being a big sister need only mention the abstract idea of a dirty diaper, without vivid details of what a dirty diaper really is.
What type of words are the best?

General or specific? Abstract or concrete? The author is the only one who knows the affect needed. And often even the author will change the perspective with each rewrite, as he narrows in on the scene. But the important thing to remember is that as that general rule are generally not all encompassing. Engaging writing acknowledges the need for a mixture of them all.

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One thought on “Questioning the Rules: Specific and Concrete Words

  1. Kelly Hartigan

    April 3, 2017 at 9:34pm

    The author’s word choice has a strong effect on the reader. As you pointed out in your example about the little boy and the tree, the POV character can influence the word choices the author uses. Depicting abstract concepts can often resonate with readers; however, authors need to find a good balance and not cross over into purple prose.

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    • Nancy

      April 4, 2017 at 8:10am

      I agree completely. There should be good reason to lapse into abstract. But at times they are appropriate. Only the writer–and sometimes the editor– knows for certainty

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  2. Sara

    April 4, 2017 at 8:36am

    I love this post. It’s something I haven’t thought about much, but definitely should give more thought to!

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    • Author

      admin

      April 4, 2017 at 2:25pm

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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    • Author

      admin

      April 8, 2017 at 6:06pm

      Thank you. I hope you’ll continue to look for our articles and that we can give you more resources. Check out our site: exploringexpression.com

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