Lecture 4: Abstractions

Abstract Language

In Philosophy of Style, published in 1852, Herbert Spencer advised against using abstract terms because the mind struggles to grasp their meaning. It is better, he wrote, to refer to the particular things that might be ascribed to the abstract term. For example, compare the following:

1. “In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of their penal code will be severe.”

2. ““In proportion as men delight in battles, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack.”

The second sentence has much more force by referring not to abstractions, i.e., manners, customs, punishments, amusements, and regulations of a penal code, but rather to types of manners, customs, etc. When we read abstract terms, our minds struggle to picture what the author is talking about. “Manners” might refer to anything from bowing or doffing a hat to the way people dress or use cutlery at a dinner table. “Customs”, “amusements” and “regulations” could refer to thousands of different things depending on region, nation, class, and interest groups holding sway. “Battles”, “bullfights”, “combats of gladiators”, “hanging” “burning” and “the rack” conjure clear images in readers’ minds

Spencer’s example is cited in The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, by Dale Carnegie, as another way of admonishing writers to use explain through creating pictures, that is, visualisations that make it easier for the audience to understand.