To start 2016 off right, those clever folks over at ProWritingAid have launched a series of great “What are…” posts to help writers understand some of the more technical elements of writing. Below is one that they have written especially for us about vague and abstract words. If you like it, you should also try these ones over at their blog:
And keep your eye on their website or sign up for their newsletter because they have loads more in the pipeline!
What are Vague Words and Why Should You Stay Away from Them?
There are two types of words that muddy the waters for clarity and concise writing: vague and abstract words.
Vague words are too subjective in meaning, like tall, pretty, a little, slightly, or good. Each of us has different worldviews to help us define what “pretty” means. And we all know “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Pretty doesn’t tell us much, does it?
If you want readers to get more than a hint of your meaning, you need to choose words with strong denotations instead of a vague term open to interpretation. Consider the following sentences:
She was a pretty girl.
Her face displayed perfect symmetry: wide-set eyes, high cheek bones, full lips, and a dainty nose that fit perfectly with her features.
Which gives you a better picture in your mind? Concise writing doesn’t always have the fewest words, but rather the strongest ones. Replacing vague words with strong ones helps give concrete meaning to your prose. It’s hard work, but the results are worth reading.
An abstract noun denotes something intangible, such as a quality or state. A concrete noun denotes the person or thing that may possess that quality or be in that state. For example: man is concrete and humanity is abstract, brain is concrete and thought is abstract. Abstract nouns are sometimes perfect, but they should not be used to excess.
There are two main reasons for limiting your abstract word usage:
- Indirect Statements
Abstract nouns can make your statement indirect, which makes its meaning more difficult to grasp. Look at this sentence where the subject is an abstract noun:
Was this the realisation of an anticipated problem?
A concrete noun is much more natural:
Did you expect you would have to do this?
The subject of this sentence is abstract:
The association of varying ingredients can sometimes work together to such a degree that a new and exciting flavor is revealed.
Whereas the subject of this one is concrete:
Mixing together different-tasting foods—try putting mayonnaise on a peanut butter sandwich—can create a new favorite comfort food.
- Imprecise Meaning
Abstract nouns have less precise meanings than concrete ones, and so they are open to interpretation. When you use common nouns like house or child, your reader knows exactly what you mean. When you use words like kindness or improvement, their meaning is more open to interpretation.
John made some improvements on his house and it’s now more valuable.
John replaced the roof, repainted the kitchen and laid hardwood floors in his house. As a result, its value has increased by 10%.
In the second example, you have a much better idea about what was actually done to John’s house. In the first example, you don’t know if John just replaced one doorknob or completely renovated the whole house.
The precise idea that you are trying to get across may be lost if your reader’s interpretation of an abstract noun is different from yours. But it’s hard to be precise, which is why we fall back on abstract words. The key is to use abstract words sparingly, making sure you instead opt for concrete nouns in your descriptive writing.
Couching words in vague expressions can blur meaning to the point where it no longer exists. Politicians use vagueness to their advantage when they want to give a statement that sounds rhetorically impressive without committing themselves to specific pledges.
Consider this extract from a speech that UK Prime Minister David Cameron made in November 2015:
Let’s acknowledge that the answer to every problem is not always more Europe.
Sometimes it is less Europe.
Let’s accept that one size does not fit all.
That flexibility is what I believe is best for Britain; and, as it happens, best for Europe too.
Doing what is best for Britain drives everything I do as Prime Minister.
That means taking the difficult decisions, and sometimes making arguments that people don’t much want to hear.
It’s like he was trying to give us an over-the-top example in how to use loads of words to say nothing at all!
Vague language has been constructed here by using:
- abstract nouns as the subject – “that flexibility”; “what is best for Britain”
- undefined reference points for contrast – “less Europe” and “more Europe”
- clichés – “difficult decisions”, “the answer to every problem”, “one size does not fit all”
- vague words – “sometimes”, “as it happens”, “much”, “people”
In these six sentences, the Prime Minister has talked about Europe, Britain and decision-making without mentioning a single specific example or point of policy. He has been intentionally vague so that everyone listening or reading can agree with what has been said.
Using language in this way is great if your character is a politician or intends to waffle. If not, it will just be frustrating to read. Your readers will lose interest if they have to wade through paragraphs that communicate no real message.
Vague words to look out for include: some, sometimes, a few, many, most, much, early, late, others, soon, really, stuff, things.
The flip side of having to avoid vague language is that using specific language will help galvanize your plot and contribute to character development.
Let’s consider this paragraph:
Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do next. She had already collected most of her stuff but really didn’t want go back. Thinking about making the journey was tiring: she just wanted to stay in and put her feet up.
Rewriting the vague language may seem like a chore, but it’s actually an opportunity.
Perhaps there is a key plot point to work in – has Sarah’s reason for leaving already been outlined? If not, this is the time to reveal to the reader that she has committed a crime or is fleeing an ex-boyfriend.
Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do next. She had already collected most of her stuff from Lee’s flat, but couldn’t face going back in case he was still there. It was too tiring to make the journey: she just wanted to stay in and forget he existed.
Or you could focus on characterization, adding specifics to give your readers an insight into Sarah’s personality and preferences. Is she a nervous and sentimental character?
Sarah was crippled by uncertainty. She had already collected the items most precious to her – she stroked the ear of the rescued Rufus for reassurance – but her clothes and make-up were still in the flat. Just the thought of driving over was exhausting: she would rather curl up on the sofa with a hot chocolate and pretend it had never happened.
Or perhaps she is feisty and easily angered?
Sarah cursed her indecision. She had grabbed enough clothes for the next few days, but she had left behind all of her winter coats, perfume and rarely-worn jewelry. Glaring at her car keys, she braced herself for the return trip and promised herself a bottle of red as a reward.
If you have a paragraph full of vague words, embrace the chance to rewrite it in a way that will bring your characters to life.
Let’s leave vagueness and abstract wording to the politicians.
If you want to take your reader on a journey with you, eliminate words without a precise meaning. Every word should move the reader along your path with confidence and clarity to arrive at your conclusion.
If a word doesn’t represent a concrete meaning, replace it. Try running your writing through the ProWritingAid.com editing tool—the program automatically picks out all the vague and abstract words cluttering your prose.
Carefully consider every word you write and choose the best word possible. Your writing will be tighter, and your readers will be more engaged. It’s well worth it.