Concrete & Abstract Words

Difference Between Concrete and Abstract Words

It was enunciated in the beginning of this discussionOpens in new window that wordsOpens in new window are not directly related to the things and experiences they describe.

LanguageOpens in new window is basically an abstract system of signs. However, there are levels of abstraction.

For example, calling a cow a “cow” is less abstract and conveys a more precise meaning than calling it “an animal” or “livestock”. So does identifying someone as “Daniel” rather than referring to him as “friend” or “man”.

Classification of Words

Words can be loosely classified as concrete and abstract. A dictionary will tell you that concrete words are signs which name a thing, or a class of things, as opposed to naming a quality or attribute.

Examples of Concrete Words

Examples of concrete words are “father”, “sailor”, “radio”, “church”, and “pencil”, to name but a few. In each instance the referent is the thing which is being named.

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In contrast to concrete words, abstract words are the names for qualities and attributes. Such words as “love”, “humanity”, “justice”, “pleasure”, “clever”, and “worship” do not denote an actual object.

You can see from these examples that concrete words carry more specific meanings than abstract words.

Since the referents for concrete words can be perceived by the senses—they are able to be seen, heard, and even felt—there is a smaller margin of meaning error than in the case of abstract words. Hence, there is likely to be less misunderstanding between communicator and recipient.

Generally, abstract words have feelings, emotions, attitudes and ideas as their referents. Since the referent is a concept rather than a thing, words such as “democracy”, “ethics”, “honest”, “crowd”, or “freedom” are likely to be different for different people. There is thus more likely to be a breakdown in communication (cf. Andersch, Staats & Bostrom 1969).

To finalize this discussion, we summarize the main problems that have been identified in connection with denotation and connotationOpens in new window, and concrete and abstract words:

  1. The connotative meaning of a word may overshadow and distort its historical (denotative) meaning.
  2. The referent of a word may be different for different people.
  3. The referents of abstract words are highly individualized because they do not exist in actuality (cf. Andersch, Staats & Bostrom 1969:123).
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