“Use Effective Language”–

 

Or—write so your ideas leap off the page.

In talking with students this week about abstract and concrete language, I’ve noticed that most are accustomed to thinking about specific, imaginative (image-based), colorful language only in the context of fiction or poetry. When students think of essays, they think of dry, general, conceptual language. In short, they think only in the abstract.

Likewise, in researching concrete language on the web, I’ve noticed that most examples lend themselves only to “literary” writing, or story-telling. Sure, “Pied Beauty” is packed to bursting with dazzling, crackling concrete language—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced-fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

—but how are words like that going to help with an argumentative essay on the necessity of preserving privacy in internet age?

It’s a leap, for sure, and one that requires stirring up a whole lot of mental energy—passion for your subject, even. But good (concrete!) examples help, too. So here you go:

(From Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”)

Didion’s idea, stated in the abstract:

“We were seeing a desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.”

And here is her concrete version:

“These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

The following example combines concrete language, abstract ideas, and polemics, but it is vivid enough to serve our purposes.

General idea:

Americans should put more thought into what they eat.

Specific example:

“The real danger is this: we as consumers and subjects continue to place diffident trust in an agency whose compromised authority is known. The USDA stamp of approval goes on meat, dairy, and eggs of the lowest quality, which are raised, slaughtered, and processed by the lowest possible ethical standards, not to mention fruits, vegetables and grains that are genetically modified to resist pesticides (or to release pesticides as they grow), the effects of which have not been tested (unless one considers the entire US population to be a test sample).”

One way to start the process of thinking and writing concretely is to write lists of concrete words that you (and your memory and imagination) associate with the abstract concepts you want to express. Another way is to begin identifying examples in others’ writing. Try it out, let us know what you find (or write!)

Here are some links to websites with related advice on essay writing (especially the first two!):

http://www.domesatreview.com/sat-essay-provide-concrete-examples-avoid-generalizations

http://faculty.washington.edu/ezent/el.htm

http://www2.ivcc.edu/rambo/eng1001/eng1001_diction.htm

http://www.moonstar.com/~acpjr/Blackboard/Common/Webdocs/AbstractConcrete.html

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