What this resource is about:

This resource explains the characteristics and purposes of concrete and abstract language. 

Concrete and Abstract Language 

  • Concrete language refers to tangible or perceivable characteristics in the real world. Such language is often called “specific." Concrete language can help your reader more precisely understand your writing. 
  • Abstract language refers to intangible ideas, rather than real-world objects. This kind of language can be called “general” or “non-specific." 


Examples of Concrete Language vs Abstract 

Concrete (Tangible) 

Abstract (Intangible) 

80 degree Celsius. 

High temperature. 

A pH of 5.8.  

Slightly acidic. 

An insufficient amount of reagents, too low of a temperature. 

Poor reaction conditions. 


Note that concrete language is not necessarily better than abstract language. It can clarify a point, but sometimes that clarification needs to only be made once or every so often. For example, “an insufficient amount of reagents” is more concrete than “poor reaction conditions”, but it could be specified further if need be. (E.g., “one equivalent of regent when two equivalents are necessary.”)   

Writers must work to effectively use both concrete and abstract language. When abstract language leads to confusion, writers can revise for clarity by choosing concrete language. Once writers have provided clarity through concrete language, they can then use abstract language to keep from being repetitive or to be more efficient. 

Here are additional helpful writing skills that may balance concrete and abstract language: 

  • “Make your main characters the subject of your sentences” (Williams & Bizup, 2017). 
  • “Make important actions verbs” (Williams & Bizup, 2017). 


Further Examples 

Consider the clarity of the following sentences:  

  1. The sterilization of the inoculation loop utilizes an effective lab technique by a researcher.
  2. Researchers utilize effective lab techniques by sterilizing inoculation loops. 

In the first sentence, sterilization is the subject, but the actor of the sentence is not immediately clear. The verb utilize remains a verb, but it is not being done by the researcher, rather it is done by the sterilization, which causes confusion. Writers can remedy this problem by making the concrete actor (the researcher) the thing doing the action verb, as in sentence 2. Following Williams and Bizup’s recommendations improves the flow of sentence. 

Writers can use Williams and Bizup’s recommendations to compose a variety of clear sentences for their audience. For example, a writer could write a third sentence changing the organization and the action verb: 

       3. Researchers sterilize inoculation loops, which utilizes an effective lab technique.  


Source: Williams, J.M., & Bizup, J. (2017). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.). Pearson Education Inc.