Introduction to abstract vocabulary

In order to express yourself effectively in academic writing, one of the things that your active vocabulary should contain is a good range of nouns, particularly abstract ones. Those nouns which are easiest to learn and remember very often have a concrete meaning. In contrast, to express ideas you will need to draw on nouns with abstract meanings.

What do you think is the difference between an abstract noun and a concrete noun?


concrete noun: something that you can see and feel; with physical existence, e.g. a person, a banana, a machine.

abstract noun: something without physical existence; e.g. a feeling (happiness), a time (childhood), a state (relaxation).

Very often in English, a noun may have both a concrete and abstract meaning, depending on the context in which it is used. In building your vocabulary, therefore, it helps to be familiar with the different meanings and uses of nouns.

In practice, writers and speakers make use of many words that can have both concrete and abstract meanings.

A useful way to understand more about the meanings and uses of abstract nouns is to study examples taken from authentic speech or writing.

Online concordance programs can be used to search for useful sets of examples. The user enters a word or phrase into a search box and the concordancer searches for websites which contain examples of the word in use. A list of these examples is then returned to the user, who can then analyse and compare how the word or phrase is used in different contexts. This can help to clarify your understanding of the most common ways in which a word can be used. Try it here:

VLC Web Concordancer

| cycle | area | approach | component |

Follow these steps:

  • Choose 'English, Simple Search'for your search (in the table, on the VLC web page)
  • For 'Keyword', select 'equal to' and, in the empty box to the right of this, enter one of the nouns
  • Select 'Search for concordances' and wait for the concordancer to return a list of examples of the use of the noun
  • Choose two or three of the examples and see the larger context by selecting the blue underlined link; notice in particular the abstract uses of the word
  • Return to the 'Web Concordancer' to carry out the same procedure for the other three nouns

SOURCE: Open University 2011