Sunday, April 18, 2010

Specific, Concrete Language. Part 1.

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

Close your eyes for a moment as you create a vivid picture of a tree in your mind. Is it tall or short? Full or scrawny? Does it have leaves or needles? Is it deep green in color or a ripe, full-bodied burgundy? Is it adorned with soft, downy snow, or is it weighed down by grackles? In other words, using the word “tree” in no way guarantees that your reader will imagine the tree you have in mind.

Although “tree” is a concrete word, it still fails to communicate clearly because it is not specific. Learning to be concrete and specific is the focus of this and next week’s lessons.

First, let’s review concrete versus abstract language: concrete words refer to things that are made of matter. You and I could walk hand in hand as I teach you about concrete language. In fact, this is exactly what your parents and elementary teachers did. As they named objects that exist, that are tangible and can be weighed, measured, or photographed, you learned the names of things.

For example, as you, a toddler, pointed at the colorful, winged creature fluttering by, your mother enunciated “butterfly,” thereby encouraging you to make the connection and later repeat the word. As you grew, “butterfly,” “doggie,” “puppy,” and “kitty cat” failed to describe the variety within each class or species. You noticed that a Great Dane is quite different from a fuzzy poodle; to a child two feet tall, the Great Dane must resemble a horse so the child seeks language as well as reassurance. Mom or Dad provides “dog” and “big dog” and “Great Dane.” In these ways, you acquired vocabulary. Through reading and listening in and out of school, your vocabulary continued to increase, your abilities to name concrete objects improved.

What you must now do, as a writer, is dig deeper to find the most precise name for the concrete thing in your message. Use the same inquiring eye with which you were born and learn the most exact name for a particular chair, desk, butterfly, dog, tree, and pony. Become familiar with experts and expert resources, including atlases, compendiums, search engines, the Oxford English Dictionary, thesauri, and synonym or antonym collections.

Sometimes, even if you have an exact word, it will still not be enough to communicate to a general audience. How many readers can imagine what a polyphemus moth looks like? In addition, sometimes, an exact word does not exist to describe the thing you have in mind. In these instances, you must become adept at description. Adding adjectives and phrases will help. For example:

The boy sat.

In this short sentence, “boy” is concrete, but not specific. The words do not insure that my reader will picture what I intend. I must challenge myself to create the exact picture I wish the reader to see. I must ask and answer questions: How old is this boy? Where is he? What is his posture?

The first-grade boy slumped in his oversized school desk, his toes brushing the scarred, dull linoleum floor.

Better? Yes. My reader now has a better idea about my message because I have added specific details and traded the verb “sat” for “slumped” to more accurately describe the little boy’s posture.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics

When working to become concrete and specific, writers can create some very funny sentences if writers do not place the descriptive phrases correctly. Misplaced and dangling modifiers are everywhere. Good writers and readers spot them and know where the modifier should appear.

Here’s a sentence with an error:

A sniper shot the victim in the woods today.


This sentence says that a victim sustained an injury in his woods. I wonder if such an injury is fatal . . . ?

The corrected sentence should read:

Today, in the woods, a sniper killed the victim.


Here’s another error:

I enjoy romantic movies because love overcomes all problems to bring the unhappy couple together, such as “The Bounty Hunter” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

Lists or examples that begin with “such as” or “including” should be placed immediately after the noun they modify, describe, or illustrate:

I enjoy romantic movies such as “The Bounty Hunter” and “When Harry Met Sally” because love overcomes all problems to bring the unhappy couple together.

Proofread your own writing to detect misplaced phrases. One easy way to spot them is to read your sample from the last sentence to the first, working backwards. By taking the sentences out of order, you see them separately. Your own misplaced pharses then jump out at you.

Reading Challenge:

Search newspaper articles for misplaced phrases. Repair them.

Writing Challenge:

Practice making concrete words specific. Write at least 3 specific and concrete sentences every day.