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How to Write Clear, Readable, Effective Sentences that Readers Love!
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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

Understanding Abstract Words in Plain English Writing

Abstract Words: Abstract words name intangible things of condition, quality, or idea—such as:
  • beauty
  • culture
  • efficiency
  • feasibility
  • loyalty
  • effectiveness
  • wealth etc.
These abstract words are also hard for the reader's mind to handle. The things they stand for have no real existence outside of the existence that a person's mind gives them. In short, these abstract words have no concrete referents— no solid or real things outside the mind to which the mind can compare them.

It's true you'll find these abstract words defined in dictionaries, but never as something real in themselves; only as something existing in other real things—such as the color in skin; the size in numbers; the time in clocks; the depth in a program; the efficiency in an office, etc.

These abstract words—like general words—are so broad, so immeasurable, and so full of so many different meanings that they can be spread out to mean almost anything. And, like general words, abstract words have degrees of abstraction, and the higher the degree, the more difficult for the reader to find concrete meaning.

See how the abstract word "efficient" can spread out horizontally becoming dimmer and dimmer in the reader's mind as it goes from an efficient worker to an efficient staff, to an efficient bureau, to an efficient department, to an efficient government. You can see that, on its horizontal spread, the abstract word picks up a general word to "exist in," and they spread fog together. So the reader gets the double-barreled effect of countless possible meanings.

Or an abstract word can spread vertically, going immediately into the world of idea, where it is stripped of all concrete or specific marks of individuality. Take Rancher Richard's Angus bull, Gargoyle, for example. Gargoyle can be stripped of his "Angusness" by being translated into a paper property as a ranch asset, then abstracted further to become a part of the county's wealth, and then abstracted even further to become a part of the Gross National Product. It's true old Gargoyle is still included in the idea of Gross National Product, but so are billions of other products.

Or see how the Denver District's jeep loses its identity through abstraction:

It can go from one jeep to all jeeps—to all vehicles—to all government transportation—to a government cost—to the national budget—to the wealth of our economy.

See if your mind can grab onto any concrete specific meaning in these abstract words; or are they like general words—meaning so much of everything, they don't really mean much of anything?

...The feasibility of the proposed multifarious programs was projected on a long-range basis and given adequate cogitation and consideration.

No doubt you see something in that sentence, but whatever it is you see, it is vague, far-out and fuzzy. Why?

Simply because there isn't a bureau, a division, a department, a company, a school board, or any other kind of a board that couldn't write the same sentence and have it mean just as much as ours did.

That particular sentence is so abstract and carries so much meaning it can mean anything and/or everything to everybody. That's the "beauty" of abstract words. That's why writers gravitate to them naturally: they're popular, easy to find, easy to use, and they can mean anything you want them to mean ... to anybody! But here again, you set your reader to guessing at what particular meaning that you wanted him to get out of all the many meanings which your abstract words gave him. As we said, when the reader has to start guessing, the writer had better start packing.

As with general words, there's a place and a need for abstract words in your writing. But when your writing gets too heavy with them, your reader will get tired and confused. He just doesn't have the energy to go on looking at words that refuse to yield precise, concrete meaning without a fierce and agonizing struggle that involves a lot of guessing.

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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles