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Ladder of Abstraction: Choose the Right Rung

Writers, where do you stand on the “ladder of abstraction?” Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. It’s a close cousin to “show, don’t tell.” Mainly it deals with the nouns you choose.

The concept was developed by S. I. Hayakawa and spelled out in his book Language in Thought and Action. Simply put, imagine the word “eggplant” on the bottom rung of the ladder and the word “food” on the top. Hayakawa’s ladder has four rungs, going from the concrete to the abstract.

Level one words are specific, identifiable nouns, e.g., “eggplant.”

Level two words fall into broad noun categories, e.g., “vegetable.”

Level three words fall into noun classes with less specificity, e.g., “food.”

And level four words are abstractions, e.g., “sustenance.”

Now, there are no hard and fast rules you can take and run with. Often it takes more than a single concrete word to replace an abstract noun. Take an abstraction like “grief.” It might require a sentence or more. “He turned off his phone, closed the blinds, and poured another tumbler of Scotch.”

Writing on the lowest rung of the ladder evokes the strongest response from readers. They can identify with concrete images that cause their hearts to melt or race or break.

Here are a couple of things to think about. One is that you can use the different levels, especially the extremes, to differentiate characters in dialogue. A pretentious, vacuous, or secretive individual might load his speech with abstractions, while the salt-of-the-earth type speaks in concrete terms.

The second is that in my writing circles, we like to avoid using the abstract word and concrete image together. So in describing the man’s grief, I wouldn’t precede or follow the image with, “He was immobilized by grief.” I wouldn’t use the word “grief” at all. The reader gets it.

Quotable

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

–Jack Kerouac

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.