Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Writing for Style: Be Concrete

Concrete begins as careless, slovenly, and entirely feckless. It is promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it--until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant.

A concrete noun names something you can experience with one of your five senses. Something you can see (clouds), touch (silk), smell (a rose), hear (laughter), or taste (vinegar).

An abstract noun does not exist as a physical object in the world. It might name an emotion(such as anger and joy), an idea (such as justice and freedom), or a quality (such as generosity and determination). When we use abstract nouns in our writing, we can never be sure that our reader will know exactly what you mean because different abstract words mean different things to different people. Love may mean romance and fun or self-sacrifice and dedication. A reader cannot know what you mean when you use a word like love unless you follow it up with an explanation or bring it to life using concrete nouns.

Abstract: The storm was a thing of beauty.
For whom: the observer, the people hired to clean up, the architect testing her new design?
Concrete: The storm was a thing of beauty. The thundering waves rolled toward the shore. The wind bent the palm trees like huge fish caught on strong lines, and clouds raced each other across the sky. (Waves, palm trees, clouds, and sky are all concrete nouns that create a picture of the storm.

Abstract: You’ve given me love like I never had before.
What do you mean by love? Gifts of flowers and candy? Favours like scrubbing the bathroom floor or taking my nauseous Labrador puppy to the vet? Physical abuse if I look at another man/woman? Your bank account and PIN number?

Recent studies also show that lack of specificity and concreteness is a sign of an intention to deceive. Daniel Oppenheimer has just gone and proved that your English teacher and Strunk and White in The Elements of Style knew what they were talking about when they told you to lay off the five-dollar words.

More than style is at stake, says Oppenheimer, at Princeton University. People don't trust you when you load up on fancy words. Or, it turns out, when you choose fancy or italic fonts for your writing. In a series of five experiments, he found that people tended to rate the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language, using an easy to read font (Times New Roman), as higher than those who used bigger words and non-standard fonts.

The experiment involved sitting students down in front of a variety of written works - some translated bits of Descartes, grant applications, abstracts of dissertations, and other scientific stuff. They all tended to pick the straightforward writing.

Oppenheimer's resulting article, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly" is published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology. In the psychology business, the bar for humour isn't set very high.

But is this discovery really new? Here's the Canadian Press Stylebook, a guide for Canadian reporters and editors, on the same point (from the section simply called "Writing"):

"Tighten sentences to clarify, inject life and save space. Be ruthless in cutting wordiness and secondary detail. "Replace cumbersome words with short, everyday words that convey the same meaning." That way, people may actually want to read the piece.

Be specific and concrete. You will have more credibility and your readers will thank you.

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