Concrete, Precise, Specific Language

Concrete vs. Abstract Language

Concrete words refer to tangible items, things you can count, touch, name, identify in time.  For example, phrases such as ten thousand, raw cherry wood, John Smith, and ten o’clock on January 12 are concrete. Concrete language is the opposite of abstract language, which refers to intangible ideas or qualities, such as love, hate, or honor.

In professional communication, your goal is to be as concrete as possible, so that your readers, listeners, or viewers understand and interpret your message as accurately as possible, in the way you intended.  Language that connects with tangible and sensory experiences (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) is easier for readers to understand and relate to. Concrete language moves you toward that goal.

To make abstract language more concrete:

Replace abstract terms with concrete words that have clear, direct, and precise meaning.

  • Abstract: The case sought to establish equality or people of all sexual orientations. Equality can mean a variety of things to different people: What does equality mean in this instance?
  • Concrete: The case sought to legalize gay marriage.

Use language that appeals to the senses.

  • Abstract: The waiting room was unpleasant. What makes this setting unpleasant? Replace this term with specific, descriptive language.
  • Concrete: The waiting room was cold, antiseptic-smelling, and crowded with sick people who were coughing, groaning, or crying.

The following video is simple, but clear and useful in answering questions about the use of concrete language.

Precise vs. Vague Language

Professional writing should be precise: accurate, unambiguous. Vague, overly general, subjective, or ambiguous terms may be interpreted different by different audience members, thus confusing the intent of your message.  As with concrete vs. abstract language, you do not want to choose words and phrasing that could be interpreted multiple ways. Choose words that most precisely, concisely, and accurately convey your point.

The table below lists some examples of vague words and phrases edited to be precise. As you’ll see, the precise versions of the phrases anticipate and answer questions that an audience may have.



many, a lot ten, sixteen, one thousand, etc.
cool (referring to temperature) 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 35 degrees Celsius, etc.
most 90%, 94%, etc.
later / very soon 4:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m., etc. / in ten minutes, tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m., etc.
staff supervisors, accountants, Nurse Practitioners, etc.
We are making good progress on the project. In the two weeks since inception, our four-member team has achieved three of the six objectives we identified for project completion; we are on track to complete the project in another four weeks, by Friday, November 19.
For the same amount spent, we expected more value added. We examined several proposals in the $10,000 range, and they all offer more features than what we see in the $12,500 system ABC Corp. is offering.
Officers were called to the scene. Responding to a 911 call, State Police Officers Arellano and Chavez sped to the intersection of County Route 53 and State Highway 21.
Several different colors are available. The silk jacquard fabric is available in ivory, moss, cinnamon, and topaz.
This smartphone has more applications than customers can imagine. At last count, the Apple iPhone had more than 500 applications, many costing 99 cents or less; users can get real-time sports scores, upload videos, browse commuter train schedules, edit e-mails, and find recipes—but so far, it doesn’t do the cooking for you.


Note that clichés, or over-used expressions, are often vague.  Clichés can be vague because they have an agreed-upon meaning among a particular culture or group.  However, professionally, you may be working with people from many backgrounds who do not understand the agreed-upon meaning. For example, ask a non-native speaker of English if “things are looking up,” and the person may respond by physically looking upwards. So avoid clichés or, if you have used them in an initial draft, make sure to replace them with more precise language. For example:

Vague Clichés

Precise Language

ballpark figure approximately, about
few and far between rare, infrequent
as plain as day obvious, clear, plain
needless to say obvious, of course
as clear as mud unclear, vague

The following video offers a quick definition and a few examples of precise language.

Specific vs. General Language

Concrete and precise language is specific, language that details an idea, action, sensation, event.  You will give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words. Evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch with specific word choices. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” But this statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd, since “odd” is an abstract word that does not suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look and sound when you walk, painting a picture for your readers.

Note that not every word in a business communication can specific, nor should it be. But specifics do clarify your meaning. Look for general words such as “things,” “very,” or “many,” which you can replace with more specific terminology.

Summary – and when NOT to be concrete, precise, and specific

The concepts of concrete, precise, and specific language blend together into one main idea: offer appropriate, real-world examples and explanations using accurate, sensory, detailed language so that your audience can visualize, relate to, and understand your information as accurately as possible.  Realize, however, that there may be times when you consciously decide not to be precise.  For example, if you need to offer negative information and do not want to assign blame to a particular person or office, you may opt to state that “mistakes were made” instead of noting who made what mistakes.  Vagueness in this instance allows you to focus more fully on the general problem and solution instead of particular persons who made the mistakes.  In another case, you may want to offer an approximate number or amount if your purpose is to show overall comparison to an audience without specific background in the area you’re discussing. Although a general rule for professional communication is to use concrete, precise, and specific language, your situational analysis always overrides any general rules.  Use that situational analysis in your planning, creating, and editing stages to determine the best type of language for your purpose, audience, and context.