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Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered.""What is a concrete noun?" a student might ask."It's something you can drop on your foot," I always answer.
They don't realize that it's because they lack certain skills that were common among college freshmen 40 years ago.
Tyre points out how small some of the important skills are, and how conscious instruction in them can make a difference.
Yet the writing textbooks on the whole say nothing about abstractitis, mentioning it at most only in passing.
And instructors do not focus on over-abstraction, even though that's the major problem young writers have.
Henry Fowler coined the term "abstractitis" for this multiplication of abstractions, about which he said: A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.
When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit.I think we were in the corridor of the fourth floor of the Engineering Hall at U Mass Lowell a couple of years ago, between classes."Ideas are what matter," Bernadette said confidently."Getting them to define and handle ideas is what's important, not things." Students were streaming by, and I had no time to counterargue.Few will notice that the terms relationship, wealth, productivity and market society need definition or examples.They will just move those vague terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping that through repetition something will be said. The classic writers on style have talked about this abstraction problem going on a hundred years.Orwell went a step further than Fowler, actually advising writers to start wordlessly, to think of a visual thing, and then to try to find words that fit it.If the professional writers whom Fowler and Orwell addressed had to be warned away from over-abstraction, how much more do our students need that advice?An alternate approach might be to start the course with physical objects, training students to write with those in mind, and to understand that every abstract idea summarizes a set of physical facts. "If you are writing about markets, recognize that market is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it," I say. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want.Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights.But it's much more useful to regard the giving of examples as a skill, because then you can find ways to train for it. How should one train students to give good, vivid examples in their writing? I used to do that but I don't any more, because it's too vague, not operational. It goes against the conventional teacher wisdom that says students have to handle abstract ideas, and what the heck does writing physically have to do with that?One fellow instructor, Bernadette--and she's a very good teacher--said as much one time when I was trying to talk about the topic of writing with objects in freshman comp.