Use concrete nouns and strong verbs - Step 6 – Revise

7 Steps to Better Writing - Charles Maxwell 2020

Use concrete nouns and strong verbs
Step 6 – Revise

Use concrete nouns and strong verbs. Leave abstractions to philosophers.

Abstract words convey general ideas. Often they are ambiguous. Typical abstract nouns include: ability, activity, basis, case, character, circumstance, concept, condition, connection, course, effect, effort, extent, facility, factor, instance, intent, interest, manner, measure, method, nature, necessity, order, policy, position, possibility, practice, problem, prospect, purpose, quality, question, reason, relationship, responsibility, result, situation, standpoint, substance, system, type, use, utilization, view. Abstract verbs include words such as achieve, characterize, change, develop, do, go, happen, manifest, provide, realize, utilize.

Concrete nouns represent things that can be seen, felt, touched, tasted, smelled, or specifically identified. Action verbs indicate real movement or activity.

Compare the following abstract words to their more concrete counterparts.

Abstract Nouns

Concrete Nouns or Noun Phrases


State Board of Health / Food and Drug Administration / state auditor / controller / office manager


letter / email / phone call / report


plus or minus 0.01 mm tolerance


plan to sell a new insurance plan


basic engineering / draft proposal / 120 hours worked


written proposal / preliminary diagnosis / architectural sketch / verbal suggestion


job application / phone call seeking information / email inquiry


performance contract

Abstract Verbs

Action Verbs or Verb Phrases


produce 50,000 liters per day / install 55% / proof the report / sell ten new policies


calculate output / draft report / draft a sketch on the whiteboard


not exceed tensile strength of 58,000 pounds per square inch (psi)


work overtime / recalculate the loads

remain loyal

stay with current supplier

Many abstract nouns also have concrete meanings. For instance, in the phrase “instrument case,” the word case is concrete; whereas, in the phrase “the case for reconsidering the design,” the word case is abstract.

Even concrete nouns and action verbs vary in their degree of concreteness. Consider the following examples, which contrast general words to more specific words or phrases.

General Nouns

Specific Noun Phrases


drilling / machining / sandblasting / examining sick patients / selling / writing computer code


soil testing / x-ray / blood sugar test


AutoCAD drawing of the floor pipes


crushing plant / product packaging line / vehicle repair shop / operating room


stainless steel cold rolling mill


soil / heavy gauge structure steel / 4-mm polypropylene / 1-inch conduit


waiters / clerks / nurses / technicians / managers


electrical engineer / hygienist / proposal writer


excavation / compacted backfill / painting / audit accounts payable

General Verbs

Specific Verb Phrases


weigh the samples / conduct breakage tests / test the resistance


send a letter or email / telephone / talk face-to-face / read incoming mail


decline by 10% per year


double in three days


survey with laser transit / gauge with micrometer / weigh / take person’s temperature


pump 170,000 barrels per month of heavy crude oil / generate 150 MW / write 600 lines of code


run Aspen HYSYS modeling software

Often, professionals pile abstractions on top of generalizations, yielding almost meaningless gobbledygook. The following examples illustrate the improved economy and clarity achieved by using concrete nouns and action verbs.

Poor: Abstract Writing


The ability to economize is a policy that should be sought after to a large degree.

Better: Concrete Writing


Encourage thrift.

Poor: Abstract Writing


Achieving a high level of attainment of financial performance can be obtained by the successful utilization of a standard collection of operating practices.

Better: Concrete Writing


Operating standards ensure profitability.

Poor: Abstract Writing


The practice of understanding the requirements of the business relative to financial principles is a reassuring trend in the development of situations that lead to success.

Good: Concrete Writing


Profit and loss statements provide the information investors need.

The following sentence by John Dewey illustrates abstraction taken to the extreme:[16]

Consequences that successfully solve the problems set by the conditions which give rise to the need of action supply the basis by means of which acts, originally ’naturally’ performed, become the operations of the art of scientific experimentation.

In conclusion, avoid abstractions—use specific language consisting of concrete nouns and action verbs.