Sunday, April 25, 2010

Specific, Concrete Language, Part 2.

“We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style” (Tom Stoppard).

Abstract words are words that denote an idea or concept that is not tangible or made of matter. You learn abstract words and their meanings in the same way you learn concrete words.

For example, before you had the ability to form words, you still experienced emotions. When your face darkened, your hands closed into fists, and your shrieks could be heard in space, your parent described your state as “angry,” “frustrated” or “uncomfortable.” Dad or Mom named your emotion for you, saying with great sympathy, “What’s wrong? Are you mad?” Over time, as you grew, you acquired a simple vocabulary for abstractions even before you were adept at sorting them.

Writers need a continuum of words for every abstraction, and they need a pantry stocked with images to help communicate abstractions for readers. Consider the case of “happiness:”

A toddler who has just successfully climbed his own little Everest—the living room couch—and snuggled in beside Dad may announce, “Feel good.” In another year, scaling the family couch to sit beside Dad may produce, “I am happy,” but at thirteen, the same kid will take the family couch for granted. Flopping on it will be a habit, not an accomplishment, and sitting next to Dad too childish. The teen’s happiness will be found in friends, texting, and social acceptance. Many years later, getting up from a low couch will be another Everest and sitting next to Dad only a fond memory that inspires feelings we call happiness.

From the example above, we can infer that abstractions such as happiness, love, faith, loyalty, and pride are moving targets, their meanings shifting and becoming more complex with every life experience. Therefore, writers must tie abstractions to concrete words to communicate clearly.

One of the most baffling abstract human experiences is love. What we mean when we say “I love you” depends upon the person’s relationship to us. A mother’s loving assertion may mean that she promises to accept, teach, guide, protect, and support. A young twenty-something may feel more desire than selfless concerns.

So how do we judge what “love” means to the people involved? The same way we judge character: by actions. We know others by their deeds.

Consider two scenes, featuring a man and woman, walking in the light of a hot sun. In both scenes, she squints against the harsh glare, but one man, seeing her discomfort, does nothing. He shoves his hands in his pockets, lowers his head, and pushes forward while the second man shifts his body to raise a hand, shielding her face, giving her the gift of shade. Which man cherishes his companion? The second, of course. We may infer that he loves the woman and can prove or disprove our inference by watching the two interact over time.

What can you infer from the following comparison between an implied abstraction (a feeling) and something concrete?

He is my anchor in a storm.

He makes her feel safe and secure. He cares enough for her to protect her from harm or fear. He loves her.

Comparisons are the basis of images such as the metaphor above. They link the unknown (usually an abstraction) to something known (usually a concrete word or action), and thereby, communicate meaning.

So, good writers do not tell readers that “he loves her.” Good writers show a man protecting a woman from a glaring sun. Effective writers link abstract words to concrete ones.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.

An excellent resource for correct grammar, usage and mechanics is a book entitled The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. You will find new copies, leather-bound and in paper, and you will find copies in used bookstores. Buy one and leave it in your briefcase. It is a handy reference for all sorts of questions that arise.

Reading Challenge:

Read anything from Shakespeare to comics, looking for abstractions made both specific and concrete. Copy the best of them on the left side of a divided piece of paper. To the right of each passage, write the conclusion that you drew from the comparison.

Writing Challenge:

Make abstractions concrete by showing them with actions or inventing images for them.