"In grammar," notes Tom McArthur, "an abstract noun refers to an action, concept, event, quality, or state (love, conversation), whereas a concrete noun refers to a touchable, observable person or thing (child, tree) (Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 2005).
Examples and Observations:
- "With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace,
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace,
And your basement clothes and your hollow face,
Who among them can think he could outguess you?"
(Bob Dylan, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands")
- "At middle age the soul should be opening up like a rose, not closing up like a cabbage."
(John Andrew Holmes)
- John Updike's Concrete Nouns
"I kept looking out of the windows. The three red lights of the chimneys of the plant that had been built some miles away, to mine low-grade iron ore, seemed to be advancing over our neighbor’s ridged field toward our farm. My mother had mistaken me for a stoic like my father and had not put enough blankets on the bed. I found an old overcoat of his and arranged it over me; its collar scratched my chin. I tipped into sleep and awoke. The morning was sharply sunny; sheep hustled, heads toppling, through the gauzy blue sky. It was authentic spring in Pennsylvania. Some of the grass in the lawn had already grown shiny and lank. A yellow crocus had popped up beside the BEWARE OF THE DOG sign my father had had an art student at the high school make for him."
(John Updike, "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car." Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962)
- Balancing Abstract and Concrete Diction
"Beauty and fear are abstract ideas; they exist in your mind, not in the forest along with the trees and the owls. Concrete words refer to things we can touch, see, hear, smell, and taste, such as sandpaper, soda, birch trees, smog, cow, sailboat, rocking chair, and pancake. . . .
"Good writing balances ideas and facts, and it also balances abstract and concrete diction. If the writing is too abstract, with too few concrete facts and details, it will be unconvincing and tiresome. If the writing is too concrete, devoid of ideas and emotions, it can seem pointless and dry."
(Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz, Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition. St. Martin's, 1982)
"Abstract and general terms represent ideas, explain attitudes, and explore relationships such as contigency (if something will happen), causality (why it occurs), and priority (what is first in time or importance). Concrete and specific words clarify and illustrate between abstract and concrete words and general and specific language, blending them naturally.
"To achieve this mix, use abstract and general words to state your ideas. Use specific and concrete words to illustrate and support them."
(Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II, The Scribner Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Allyn and Bacon, 2001)
- The Ladder of Abstraction
"The Ladder of Abstraction is one way to visualize the range of language from the abstract to the concrete--from the general to the specific. On the top of the ladder are abstract ideas like success, education, or freedom; as we move down each rung of the ladder the words become more specific and more concrete. When we reach the bottom rung of the Ladder of Abstraction, we should find something that we can see or touch, hear, taste, or smell."
(Brian Backman, Persuasion Points: 82 Strategic Exercises for Writing High-Scoring Persuasive Essays. Maupin House, 2010)