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We can become more and more specific. It can be a La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner. Itcan be a green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner. It can be a lime green velvetLa-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jellydoughnut pressed into the back edge of the seat cushion. By the time we get to thelast description, we have surely reached the individual, a single chair. Note how easy itis to visualize this chair, and how much attitude we can form about it.

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It took a lot of concrete, specific experiences to teach you that lesson, but you tryto pass it on with a few general words. You may think you're doing it right, giving yourchild the lesson without the hurt you went through. But the hurts teach the lesson, notthe general terms. "You can't always trust everybody" may be a fine main ideafor an essay or paragraph, and it may be all that you want your child or your reader tograsp—but if you want to make that lesson clear, you'll have to give your child or yourreader the concrete, specific experiences.


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Take love as an example. You've heard and used that word since you were threeor four years old. Does it mean to you now what it meant to you when you were five? whenyou were ten? when you were fourteen (!)? I'm sure you'll share my certainty that the wordchanges meaning when we marry, when we divorce, when we have children, when we look backat lost parents or spouses or children. The word stays the same, but the meaning keepschanging.

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If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms to concrete terms."We'll direct all our considerable resources to satisfying the needs of ourconstituents" sounds much better than "I'll spend $10 million of your taxes on anew highway that will help my biggest campaign contributor." But your goal as awriter is not to hide your real meanings, but to make them clear, so you'll work to usefewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.

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You may think you understand and agree with me when I say, "We all wantsuccess." But surely we don't all want the same things. Success means differentthings to each of us, and you can't be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On theother hand, if I say "I want a gold Rolex on my wrist and a Mercedes in mydriveway," you know exactly what I mean (and you know whether you want the samethings or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and moreinteresting than abstract terms?

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We can make the group smaller with the less general term, chair. This is stillpretty general (that is, it still refers to a group rather than an individual), but it'seasier to picture a chair than it is to picture furniture.

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While abstract terms like love change meaning with time and circumstances,concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hotand puppy mean pretty much the same to you now as they did when you were four.

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Concrete termsrefer to objects or events that are available to the senses. [This is directly opposite toabstract terms, which name things that are notavailable to the senses.] Examples of concrete terms include spoon, table, velvet eyepatch, nose ring, sinus mask, green, hot, walking. Because these terms refer toobjects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell, their meanings are prettystable. If you ask me what I mean by the word spoon, I can pick up a spoon andshow it to you. [I can't pick up a freedom and show it to you, or point to asmall democracy crawling along a window sill. I can measure sand and oxygen byweight and volume, but I can't collect a pound of responsibility or a liter of moraloutrage.]