Word & Grammar: Nouns

What’s in a Name? Everything

Concrete Nouns

Verbs bring the action, but nouns shape the sentence. They are the actors; the players who strut and fret within the worlds we create. They are the furnishings, the props, the open places needed to create the semblance of reality. 

And, as often as possible, these things should be concrete.

As writers, our job is to supply vivid images that our readers can play out in their imaginations, or at least evoke a mood or a place. Our minds shun the abstract and favor the tangible.

Writing is a kind of magic. Words appear as little squiggles on the page or screen and, like magic, they are transformed into mental pictures, scenery we can sink into, characters we grow to love. 

Let’s do an exercise. Imagine a box.

With nothing up my sleeve, I have conjured a box out of thin air. Everyone reading these words now has a box floating in their minds. Nouns are the closest things we have to real magic. 

But everyone is imagining a different box. 

Words, especially nouns exist on something called a ladder of abstraction, a concept made famous by S.I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Thought and Action. It basically means that concepts go from deep abstractions like love and power to specific, concrete nouns. This is word choice. This is something to practice. 

How and when we move nouns up and down the ladder of abstraction is something we can control in our writing, choosing the appropriate word to convey the appropriate meaning. This is a skill we can deliberately practice that will improve our writing.

The word box sits somewhere in the middle of the ladder—a vague, but concrete noun.

Okay, let’s bring that image into closer focus and call it a shoebox.

Voila, now a shoebox appears in your mind. If it’s just an ordinary, non-essential detail, this is where you’d stop. I’m sure this imaginary shoebox is being visualized in a rainbow of shapes and colors, but if it’s not important, it doesn’t matter.

Okay, but let’s say it is important. Let’s say your story is called “The Shoebox” and this is the pivotal scene where your character opens the shoebox for the first time.

This is the time to pull out the adjectival phrases, the modifiers.