A linguistic analysis of words in concrete and abstract language is available by pressing analysis.






Words in everyday language are predominantly concrete. Academic language is distinguished by the predominance of abstract words – these constitute the language of ideas.


Concrete words


It cannot be stressed too strongly that concrete language is the most important part of language and is mastered in its spoken form by all normal human beings.


“Language originated in and has its primary reference to everyday life; it refers above all to the reality I experience in wide-awake consciousness, which is dominated by the pragmatic motive (that is the cluster of meanings directly pertaining to present or future actions) and which I share with others in a taken-for-granted manner.” (Berger and Luckmann, 1967)


Concrete words can be described in the notional terms of traditional grammar:


  • nouns are naming-words (people e.g. Sheila, the doctor), places e.g. Birmingham, the yard), things e.g. the cow, a table, Ulysses)
  • verbs are doing-words (e.g. to jump, to read, to have)
  • adjectives are describing-words (e.g. blue, small, heavy)


Concrete words are literal (not metaphoric)


  • Concrete nouns refer literally to some object which has spatial and temporal dimensions. They are first-order nominals (Lyons, 1977)



Abstract language (the language of ideas)


Abstract language is made accessible through education. It is essentially written language of the kind that makes it possible for us to think about ideas or concepts. The language of ideas is produced by using extra options within the language system. They are:




Turning verbs into nouns enables us to think about processes:


By adding an ending:

  • to treat  - treatment
  • to operate - operation
  • to ration - rationing
  • to heal - health


Without an ending:

  • I care about my patients (verb) - They deserve better care (noun)


Turning adjectives into nouns enables us to think about conditions:


By adding an ending:

  • sad - sadness
  • perfect - perfection


Without an ending:

  • my blue dress (adjective) - I like that blue. (noun)


This is covered in Unit 1 of The Language of Ideas.




Abstract ideas depend on the linguistic option of metaphor. Words with a literal meaning refer to concrete entities (with spatial and temporal dimensions) Words with a metaphoric meaning refer to an idea or concept.


I can’t find my key. (literal) - This is the key to success (metaphor)


Personification: Concrete (literal) language primarily shows how people, animals, things act upon one another. (e.g. The vet examined the rabbit. The soil produces good crops.) A very important branch of metaphor is the transference of this to abstract ideas. (e.g. The Committee examined the document. Climate change produces famine.)


The mixed origins of the English language


Nominalisation and metaphor are not difficult concepts. What makes them difficult to spot in English is that, because of the mixed origins of English, the link between the concrete and abstract words is lost (unlike Spanish, Bulgarian, German etc.). Very often in English the concrete word is derived from Anglo-Saxon and the abstract word from Latin or Greek.


For example, to heal can be nominalised as health. But we also have the nominalisation medicine (from the Latin verb medeor to heal. In the second case the link between the concrete verb to heal and the abstract noun medicine is lost. English students have to learn a whole new abstract vocabulary before they can understand the language of ideas.


The indispensible scientific concept energy is a nominalisation from the Greek verb energeo (to work, to be in action)


Moreover, the link between the literal and metaphoric meaning of words is often lost in English. For example, an apple hangs from the tree (literal), whereas prosperity depends on economic growth (metaphoric from Latin verb pendere - to hang, de – from). By contrast, to hang and to depend are both translated by the German verb abhängen  or the Bulgarian verb zavisi.


Abstract language and essay marks


The crucial importance of abstract language in academic writing is supported by the evaluation of the book-based course used the Widening Participation programme at UCE. Julia Barnes was appointed to set up the course in Sixth Forms and Colleges of Further Education in Birmingham in 2000. She used her evaluation of the programme as part of her dissertation for an MA in Applied Linguistics (for which she was awarded a first class degree in 2002).


Of particular interest here is the table below. She writes:


“One of the most striking themes to emerge from the research findings of this project is the correlation between essays achieving a high mark and the inclusion therein of abstract linguistic features as outlined above. Below is a table containing a sample of the findings:


Table 9

Subject Abstract Features Marks on Written Test
1 71 5
2 62 5
3 57 4
4 18 2
5 6 1



It would seem reasonable then, to hypothesise that there is a correlation between the level of abstraction and the level of writing as those students with most abstraction

have the highest scores.”


Julia Barnes is now Course Director, Foundation Certificate in English for Academic Purposes at Birmingham City University.