Grammar Tip of the Week!. Week Three Concrete Language (from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style ). Use Definite , Specific , Concrete Language. A writer must prefer the specific to the general , the definite to the vague, and the concrete to the abstract.
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Grammar Tip of the Week! Week Three Concrete Language (from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style)
Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language • A writer must prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, and the concrete to the abstract. • If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. • The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.
Examples • NOT SPECIFIC: A period of unfavorable weather set in. • SPECIFIC: It rained every day for a week. • NOT SPECIFIC: He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward. • SPECIFIC: He grinned as he pocketed the coin. The rewritten sentence are grounded in definite, concrete terms.
Essay Writing • In both creative writing and argumentative writing, a writer must never lose his hold upon the concrete; even when he is dealing with general principles, he must furnish particular instances of their application. • VAGUE: In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of its penal code will be severe. • SPECIFIC: In proportion as men delight in battles, bullfights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack.
Essay Writing • VAGUE: To excel in college, you’ll have to work hard. • SPECIFIC: To excel in college, you’ll need to attend every class, do all your reading beforehand, write several drafts of each paper, and review notes weekly. • VAGUE: The student enjoyed the class. • SPECIFIC: Kelly enjoyed Professor Sprout's 8:00 a.m. Biology class.
The Ladder of Abstraction • Most words do not fall nicely into categories; they’re not always either abstract or concrete, general or specific. Moreover, the abstract and general often overlap, as do the concrete and specific. • It can be easier to classify words by placing them on a scale or continuum: TheLadder of Abstraction. • On this scale, we place a word on a higher or lower level of abstraction. The lower on the scale, the more concrete and specific the word. • For example…
The Ladder of Abstraction 8. Food (non-specific, general) 7. Junk food 6. Dessert 5. Ice cream 4. Premium ice cream 3. Ben and Jerry's ice cream 2. Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream 1. A double-scoop waffle cone of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream (extremely specific, concrete)
To Consider… • Although abstract discussion can have an important place in college writing, concrete and specific word choices are essential to clear, memorable, and effective communication. Consider the following sentences: • ABSTRACT: Americans must be willing to protect our freedoms. • CONCRETE: Voters must be willing to give up some individual protections against wiretapping so that the government can track down terrorists and protect the nation as a whole. • CONCRETE: Voters must protect their fourth amendment right against illegal searches and seizures by calling or writing their representatives to protest the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Since the writer of the abstract sentence above might very well mean either of the—completely opposite!--ideas below it, the first sentence fails to clearly communicate its meaning.
George Orwell Demonstrates… • To show what happens when strong writing is deprived of its vigor, George Orwell once took a passage from the Bible and drained it of its blood. Here is the original: • “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
The Same Passage Drained… • “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success of failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.” • Orwell’s language lacks the specifics and concrete language; as a result, the passage is vague and less meaningful to the reader.
Now You Try… • Take each of these terms “down the ladder of abstraction.” (In other words, move them towards the concrete.) • Vehicle _____ _____ _____ • Nature _____ _____ _____ • Students ______ _____ _____
Quick Rewrites • “The man looked at the furniture and then said that his child was the cause of the damage.” • “There are things that Kurtz does that make him seem crazy and savage in the novella.”