It can be hard to remember all the different grammar words we learn throughout our time in school. Terms like “concrete noun,” which are rarely used in day to day speech, tend to slip through the cracks of memory fairly easily.
A concrete noun is any noun that refers to an object that can be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted. The term contrasts with abstract nouns, which refer to concepts and ideas that can’t be perceived with the senses. Any time a real-world object is mentioned, a concrete noun is being used.
Seems simple enough! But how can I tell if a noun is concrete or abstract?
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A quick look around you will reveal that the vast majority of all nouns are concrete nouns. Anything that can be experienced using the body is concrete.
Tables, chairs, computers, real people and places, anything that can be eaten, any matter whether gas, solid or liquid, even plasmas and Bois-Einstein condensates are all examples of concrete nouns.
Before you ask, yes. That is almost everything anyone would ever want to talk about. In fact, pretty much any object, smell, flavor, or sound that you can imagine in your head is a concrete noun.
If you’re having trouble with this exercise because you aren’t a native English speaker, you can probably do it in your native language to the same effect. Most languages make some distinction between these two kinds of nouns.
So many things are concrete nouns that it would definitely be easier to count all the things that aren’t concrete nouns than it would be to list them all here.
Abstract nouns are simply any nouns that aren’t concrete. A useless definition I know. Basically, any concept or idea that can be imagined but not experienced through the senses would be an abstract noun.
An important distinction is that fictional objects that have the qualities of a concrete noun are considered to be concrete nouns since if they were to exist they would have concrete properties
So abstract nouns include ideas like freedom, debt, danger, grammar, and law. All of these ideas may have effects on us, but those effects aren’t necessarily experienced through the five senses in any specific way.
Rather, they are experienced through an interaction between our feelings and our thoughts. They have no particular look, taste, sound, smell, or feel to them.
Differences in Grammar
For the most part, abstract and concrete nouns can be used in exactly the same ways. After all, it’s not like an abstract noun isn’t a noun.
However, there are a lot of words that we use to describe concrete nouns that we would never use to describe abstract nouns. Abstract nouns don’t have physical features. It wouldn’t make any sense for “intellectualism” to be purple, or for it to be smooth in any literal way.
It also wouldn’t make sense for an abstract noun like an agreement to have a flavor, a smell, or a texture. It’s important to note that if for some reason you are perceiving abstract ideas as having concrete properties, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t describe them as such.
Many people experience synesthesia in their lives, and there shouldn’t be a grammatical barrier to communication when it comes to describing life in that context.
Why The Distinction?
To be perfectly clear, this distinction exists only to classify the way that we treat these particular words. There are no special grammatical procedures that need to be followed when using them.
Having different terms for nouns that refer to the physical and mental worlds can be useful for analyzing the ways we treat these worlds differently, and we do treat them very differently!
I do wonder if looking too deep into this distinction can cause problems though. It wouldn’t make sense to say that abstract ideas don’t affect us in the material world, since they definitely do.
Just think about all the things people have done for the idea of superiority, or the idea of jealousy. We may talk about them differently than we’d talk about a bag or a rock, but in a lot of ways, they have a bigger effect on us than those physical objects do.
So don’t worry too much about whether you’re getting them right or wrong. Say what makes sense to yourself!