Here’s something we often find as students try to express their ideas about
the literary works they’ve read, and it’s captured in statements like these:
‘The causes of the hero’s death are abstract.’
‘The town is presented in abstract terms in the poem, rather than with particular features that give the reader a clear sense of the setting.
‘The final outcome for the married couple in the ending of the play seemed to me abstract.’
‘The moon acts in frightening, abstract ways in Lorca’s plays.’
It’s time to try to get things straight so that you don’t stray into evil paths that leave your meaning unclear to the reader and are likely to elicit an irritated X on your examination responses or other essays.
What does ABSTRACT, the adjective, actually mean? The most common uses in academic writing are pretty well encompassed in the following definitions:
Considered apart from concrete existence: The possibility of romantic love between humans always remained abstract for him, I thought.
Existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence. Love and beauty existed in real situations for me, not as something abstract.
Not based on a particular instance; theoretical. He had an abstract notion of how justice should be interpreted, never having had to administer any.
GENERAL, which is sometimes what students mean, is different and the opposite of particular; affecting or concerning all or most people, places, or things.
—other synonyms: widespread, common, extensive, universal, wide,
comprehensive, overall, across the board, universal, global, worldwide, nationwide
And then there is VAGUE —
Students have a tendency to use ‘abstract’ in some instances when what they mean is ‘vague,’ or ‘unclear,’ OR, let’s be honest:
‘not understood by me….’
Take a look at the examples above and see of any of the four actually uses ‘abstract’ in a precise and valid way. Consider whether you use the word ‘abstract’ with any precision in your own writing—or decide not to use it when you mean general, vague, unclear—or ‘not understood by me.’