Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 11

Pin Things Down with Concrete Nouns

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In this Lesson:

In this lesson, you'll learn how to substitute specific and concrete ideas for vague, abstract ones. When you do so, you'll eliminate one of the most common sources of fog in business and technical writing. The more specific and concrete your words, the more informative your writing will be.


WHAT'S AN ABSTRACT NOUN?

First, let's make sure you understand how to recognize abstract nouns when you see them. Abstract nouns are the names of things you can't visualize. They are usually the names of a condition or quality, like:

efficiency
reliability
attention
relationships
performance
situation
knowledge
function

Verify for yourself that you can't form a picture of these words without attaching them to some personal experience of your own.

A noun is usually abstract if it ends in one of these suffixes:

-tion -ism
-ity -ment
-ness -age
-ance/-ence -ship
-ability -acy

These suffixes "kill" verbs and adjectives by turning them into nouns.

Write the verbs that are the roots of these commonly used abstract nouns:

Relation
Recommendation
Improvement
Observation
Reference
Application
Development
Connection
Analysis
Utilization
Variability
Conformity

Whenever you see a word with one of these suffixes, see if you can rewrite the sentence to use the verb root instead.



USE TERMS YOUR READER CAN PICTURE

Because there is a continuous spectrum between the totally abstract and the totally concrete, some words cannot be clearly called one or the other. So many words -- like music, life, test cannot be labeled either abstract or concrete.

Look at this list of words and number them, with 1 indicating the most abstract and 8 indicating the most specific and concrete:

machine
station wagon
product
vehicle
conveyance
Edsel
car
rusty green Volkswagen

If you had trouble, go back and try to form a picture of each word. Use the clarity of your picture to guide your numbering.

Look at this abstract for a technical paper and try to identify specifically why it fails to inform as well as it could:

The recent identification of high concentrations of aged urban pollutant haze in the Arctic Basin suggests the possibility of climate modification through the interaction of the haze with solar radiation. The presence of the absorbing aerosol layer over a high-albedo surface will lead to an enhancement in the absorption of solar radiation by the atmosphere and surface surface system. This additional heating will manifest itself as an increase in the temperature of the atmosphere and an increase in the rate of ice melt in the spring.

Notice all the abstract nouns in the passage above. (If you have trouble, look for words ending in the suffixes in the table at the beginning of the lesson.) Virtually all of the information in this abstract is buried in its abstract nouns. Although you can figure out what it is trying to say if you read it carefully, the stilted tone that results from all those abstractions hinders understanding rather than making it easier.

What if the abstract were rewritten this way?

Recent increases of urban pollutant haze in the Arctic Basin could modify the Arctic climate by absorbing more sunlight. The additional heating could make the ice melt faster in the spring.

What do you think about this new version? Does it contain all the information the first one had? Does it sound somehow "less professional"? Is it easier to read? Is it clearer and more informative? Write your impressions as specifically as you can in the space below:


ELIMINATE VAGUENESS AND COSTLY AMBIGUITY

The more concrete you make your nouns, the more specific, and therefore informative your writing will be. On the other hand, if you use only abstract nouns, your writing will be vague and open to many interpretations.

Remember... writing that seeks to inform should say precisely the same thing to each reader. When your writing is full of abstract nouns, you'll get as many interpretations as you have readers.

As a side benefit, using concrete nouns forces you to clarify your own fuzzy thinking. Be aware, too, that if you use a lot of abstractions, you may have hidden motives for keeping your reader in the dark.

Read through this passage and use your green highlighter pen to mark all the abstract nouns:

This laboratory is conducting research with certain new materials that may combine one or more properties previously requiring separate production processes. These developments promise improved efficiency in manufacturing and will eventually lead to products with exciting new possibilities and even some that are revolutionary in concept.

Now rewrite this passage, making up some concrete facts to substitute for all the abstractions in the passage.

Which version would you, as a reader, prefer, assuming that you wanted to be fully informed about this laboratory's activities?

Which one would you, as a writer, use if you wanted to confuse your reader and keep the laboratory's work secret?


IF YOU MUST GENERALIZE...

Abstractions often show up when you want to make some kind of generalization. If you must make a general statement, there are two ways you can help make it more informative:

1. Remove as many abstract nouns as you can.

2. Sharpen its focus with representative examples and concrete illustrations.

Look at these "before and after" examples and learn how to replace generalizations with concrete specifics. Mark the abstract nouns in the "General" examples with your green highlighter. Underline the concrete nouns in the "More specific" examples:

General:

New circuit-testing methods are much faster than the old procedures, but they often overlook faulty components.

More Specific:

The computer-controlled circuit tester checks out our memory boards ten times faster than technicians could, but it passed twenty percent more faulty regulators last month.

General:

Pesticides increase crop yields, but often cause damage to the environment and sickness in people.

More Specific:

Since 1975, when malathion was introduced in India, 65 percent more corn was produced, but birth defects increased fourfold.

General:

With reference to your request for information about our new product line, we are happy to send you our new catalog, in which prices have been substantially reduced. We would appreciate your business.

More Specific:

Thank you for asking about our new copiers. We think the Snazzo Model 820 will suit the needs of an office your size. Our new catalog describes a special 20-percent discount on copiers purchased during December. May we call you to demonstrate the 820 in your office?

Notice how often abstractions appear in the general statements above and how they contribute to their vagueness.


For practice, notice in each of the following examples how:

1. Abstract subjects attract weak verbs.

2. Awkward phrases find their way into the sentence.

3. The real subject of the sentence has been relegated to a subordinate detail (usually the object of a preposition).

4. The sentence structure becomes convoluted and loses its force.

In this exercise, mark all the abstract nouns in green. Then rewrite each sentence to remove all of the above faults:

The situation with regard to the fish in the water cooler came up in the meeting.

The process of retyping manuscripts is disliked by most secretaries.

All responsibilities connected with the recruiting of new members rest with the club chairman.

The results of the experiment demonstrated the soundness of his theory.

The condition of the reactor is such that extensive repairs are required.

The nature of the offense is such that capital punishment is mandatory.

The reason the missile was not launched was due to the fact that mice had eaten the cables.


Find a couple of paragraphs from your own writing, and mark all the abstract nouns with your green highlighter, and underline the weak verbs and awkward constructions that accompany them. Rewrite the passage, removing as many of the abstractions as you can, and amplify any general statements with concrete examples. This space is for your rewrite:

Here is a table of some common abstractions that often show up in scientific and technical writing. Avoid them. Look through it and check the ones that you use most frequently:

ability measure activity method
approach nature case necessity
character order circumstance policy
concept position concern possibility
condition practice connection problem
course procedure degree question
effect reason effort reference
employment relation environment respect
extent responsibility instance result
intent situation interest substance
manner use dummy utilization

And here is a table of awkward phrases that creep into a lot of scientific and technical writing. Read through the list and check the ones you recognize from your own writing:

as regards in view of associated with
of the order of as to on the basis of
by means of on the part of due to the fact that
relative to for the purpose of such that
in connection with the fact that in order to
the nature of in relation to the reason for
in case of through the use of in terms of
to the extent that in the course of with reference to
in the form of with regard to in the interests of
with respect to in the light of with a view to



LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

Abstract nouns are never as informative as concrete, specific nouns. The more concrete facts and specific examples you put into your writing, the fewer people will misinterpret it.

In the next lesson, you'll learn how to make your sentences more concise and more informative by using active verbs.


-- End of Lesson 11 --

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