The best nouns ‘are concrete rather than abstract’

by Grace

Writing advice from Constance Hale in the New York Times

When we write, though, we want to say as much as we can in as few words as possible, so we find specific nouns (mother, cardiologist, kayaker). Mother is better than female, because it reveals gender as well as personal information. But nouns like soccer mom, mother hen or matron say even more because they also give clues about age and attitude.

The best nouns, then, are concrete rather than abstract, specific rather than general. They are also evocative. To illustrate this, let’s return to boats. Some of the synonyms for boat, like vessel, are so vague they could apply to any means of transportation — or any container, for that matter. Commonplace nouns like boat, ship or sea craft are less abstract. But let’s get precise: how about scow,skiff, yacht and yawl? Brand names like Sunfish, Hobie Cat, Boston Whaler give even more concrete images, while other proper nouns, like the Titanic, the U.S.S. Kentucky and the Hokule‘a allow us to precisely picture an exact boat. Nouns help us paint a scene, understand a character or put a finger on a theme. It’s worth taking the time to get them right.

Hale’s advice is echoed in Step 4 in the Kerrigan method of Writing to the Point.

STEP 4. Make the material in the four or five sentences of Step 3 as specific and concrete as possible. Go into detail. Use examples. Don’t ask, “What will I say next?” Instead, say some more about what you have just said. Your goal is to say a lot about a little, not a little about a lot.  (Chapter 4, page 43)

Here is one example from Kerrigan’s book:

  1. GENERAL:  In her room I noticed two books.
  2. SPECIFIC:  On the small table near Jessica’s plaid easy chair I noticed Heller’s Catch-22 and Galsworthy’s Man of Property. 

This reminds me that I must get back to my Writing to the Point project, which got derailed due to other priorities.


7 Comments to “The best nouns ‘are concrete rather than abstract’”

  1. Having taught tech writing for over decade as an engineering professor, I have to agree with Bonnie—the writing instruction that the students had previously had did not encourage clarity, correctness, completeness, or conciseness (the 4 C’s of engineering writing). Note that the 4 Cs occur in polar opposites (clarity and correctness, completeness and conciseness) and that much of the audience assessment in engineering writing comes from balancing these. (The “polar opposites” is not quite right, of course, as better writers can achieve both clarity and correctness, though sometimes at the expense of conciseness.)


  2. Yes, Bonnie, sometimes these details are not really important to the story, but may be used to generate interest or controversy. Your comment made me go Google “matron”, partly because I don’t find it insulting. I guess it could be insulting if a story was about two older people, a man and a woman, but only a reference to the woman’s advanced age was included. Maybe “matron” is similar to “ma’am”, insulting to some but not to others.

    I find it interesting that both engineers do not find this advice generally applies to scientific writing. Perhaps it depends what branch of science you are writing about, but in earth science (and I’m sure in others) it is usually helpful to include detail. A simple example:

    The distant mountain is high.
    The volcanic mountain located 200 miles northwest of our location rises to 7200 feet above sea level.


  3. The challenge of balancing the four C’s is not limited to technical writing. (Now I know what the four C’s of engineering writing are!)


  4. I just had to play with my example to make the sentence more concise. Of course, it depends on context and what you’re trying to say, but:

    “The 7200’ volcanic mountain is located 200 miles northwest of our location.”

    I need to do this type of editing more often, but it’s the problem of “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” 🙂


  5. I think I understand now why chick lit is so famously full of brand names.


  6. Detail is very important in tech writing, but creative noun choice is not. Generally you want to use different noun phrases for different concepts but always the same noun phrase for the same concept, so that any change in noun phrase (from “mother” to “soccer mom” in your example) indicates a change of referent. Referring to the same thing as a bacterium, a pathogen, an infectious agent, and Yersinia pestis in the same paragraph would lead to confusion, not clarity, even though all those terms could correctly describe the same thing.


  7. Amy – Well, that’s one way to add detail!


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