3 Ways to Focus on Concrete Language in Your Next Essay

Here’s a list of concrete words:

  • Bull float
  • Expansion joint
  • Forms
  • Screed
  • Trowel
  • Rebar

Yes, these are literally words related to concrete, but that’s most likely not what your prof means when he tells you to focus on concrete language.

Keep in mind, though, that these words could be considered concrete language because they’re very specific and descriptive words.

Need a little help sorting that out?

In basic terms, concrete language doesn’t mean you’re talking about pouring a new sidewalk.

Concrete language means using specific and detailed language.

So if your prof has written “Be specific!” one too many times on your essays, here’s your chance to make that happen.

Before you check out the three ways to focus on concrete language in your next essay, let’s first review exactly what “concrete language” means.

concrete language
“Concrete pouring” by H. Raab, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What Is Concrete Language?

Concrete language helps readers understand what you’re writing about through the use of tangible and specific characteristics and details. They’re usually words you can experience through your senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.

Concrete language is the opposite of abstract language, which is more generalized and often refers to intangible qualities and things that can’t easily be measured, such as love, hate, fear, or happiness.

The examples below illustrate the difference.

Abstract language: We did some prep work for the job yesterday, and it felt great to finally finish.

If you are, in fact, working on pouring the cement for your new driveway and you tell friends that you’ve “done some prep work,” they may have a general sense of what you’ve accomplished, but the statement is vague.

It also uses the term “great.” This is a feeling that can’t easily be measured. Thus, this sentence contains abstract rather than concrete language.

Concrete language: Yesterday, Adam and I finished building the forms and adding rebar for the driveway.

This sentence is more effective because it uses concrete language (words/phrases such as “Adam and I,” “forms,” and “rebar”) to provide specific details to help readers understand the focus.

Looking for some strategies to help you add concrete language into your own writing? Here are three tips.

Three Ways to Focus on Concrete Language in Your Next Essay

concrete language

Effective writers use a combination of abstract and concrete language, but if your paper is too vague, general, or lacks specifics, here’s how you can add more concrete language into your next essay.

#1 Get rid of empty words

Empty words are those filler words you use to bump up the word count on your paper. You know the type—words like “really,” “very,” “a lot,” “awesome,” “basically,” or “extremely.”

Empty words don’t add anything to your writing. They just take up space. They’re like your favorite soda. They’re filled with empty calories that contribute nothing to your diet.

Look for the empty words in the following sentence.

I had a really tough time with a lot of the questions on the test because it was extremely difficult.

This sentence is too vague and doesn’t use concrete language. It uses empty phrases— “really tough time,” “a lot,” and “extremely difficult.” To revise, add more specific word choices.

Essentially, it’s adding fluff. This is an easy trap to fall into, especially when you’re stretching to reach a required word count. But don’t do it. (There are better ways to make your essay longer.)

Your grades will thank you.
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Here’s a revised sentence with concrete language.

I struggled to complete the algebra test during the one-hour time limit because three of the questions focused on quadratic equations.

This sentence replaces empty words with concrete language (“algebra test,” “one-hour time limit,” and “quadratic equations”) to help readers understand the exact meaning.

(Bonus: It’s also longer if you’re reaching for a higher word count.)

Want to learn even more about choosing the right word for your paper? Read The Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Word Choice for Your Essay.

#2 Add specific details

concrete language
“Grand Flagstone Patio – May 2011” by Decorative Concrete Kingdom, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

To add specific details, think of the phrase show, don’t tell. Your English teachers have said this a thousand times… and with good reason. Adding specific details not only makes your reading more interesting, but it also help readers understand the meaning of your writing.

Keep in mind that even though details are important, too many details are actually a bad thing.

Here’s an example of too many details in a descriptive essay:

I put on my new purple flip flops, a purple tank, and white shorts and walked down to the beach. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I enjoyed my walk as I passed the souvenir stands that littered the sidewalks. They were filled with colorful T-shirts, key chains, beach blankets of every color, water bottles, and sunscreen. I stopped briefly at a stand to look at blue and white striped shirt, but the short woman in the red sundress behind the counter informed me that they were out of my size. So I kept walking. When I finally got to the beach, I spread out my red beach towel to cover the scorching hot sand and sat down to watch the cerulean blue sea.

This paragraph certainly contains numerous details, but did you really learn anything by reading it? Probably not. It’s a paragraph filled with description for the sake of description.

How do you know what type of description and detail to include?

Consider your purpose and audience before deciding what details are important in your paper.

Here’s what that means. If you’re writing a narrative essay, your purpose is to tell a story. While descriptive detail is important in this type of writing, you want to limit the details to the most important parts of the story.

In other words, don’t go into great detail about your long wait in the airport if the real action of your story takes place on the plane.

Here’s another example. If you’re writing a letter to the director of food services to discuss the lack of healthy options on campus, your audience only needs to know your concerns about the food on campus. You don’t need to include details about your class schedule or when you eat lunch. Such details are irrelevant.

#3 Decide the level of abstract wording

concrete language

Put simply: Words can move from general to specific. As a writer, it’s your job to select the most appropriate word for the situation.

Remember, this will depend on the purpose and audience.

Check out this basic example:

GENERAL: Clothing, footwear, shoes, women’s dress shoes, high heels

SPECIFIC: Stilettos

The word “footwear” is obviously much more general than the word “stilettos,” and which word you choose will depend on what you’re writing and why you’re writing it.

Let’s say you’re writing a report detailing the results of a study. If you indicate that the women in the study spent an average of $300 per year on footwear, you’re stating that the results include all footwear (boots, tennis shoes, dress shoes, sandals, and perhaps socks).

However, if the study actually only surveyed women about the money they spent per year on stilettos, using the word “footwear” in your report misleads your reader (and skews the results of the study).

Remember, effective writing requires a mix of abstract and concrete language. It’s up to you to decide how much detail to include and what level of abstract or concrete language you will use.

Hit a Concrete Wall?

concrete language
“Block Concrete Forms” by Concrete Forms, Flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)

Making a change in your writing style or word choices isn’t always easy. Don’t sweat it if you don’t write a paper full of precise, concrete language in your first draft.

Remember, first drafts are a chance for you to get your ideas into place.

Wait until you revise and edit to look for abstract words you might replace or revise into more concrete language. Need more help with revision, read How to Revise an Essay and Make It Better Than Ever.

If you’d like some professional help with revision, let a Kibin editor check out your paper.

Happy writing!


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