What Is an Abstract Noun?

Cynde Gregory

As every schoolchild firmly knows, nouns are the names we use for people, places, and things. And, some school children sort of know that nouns also name abstractions such as ideas, feelings, events, or other intangible things. Abstract nouns are words for things that can’t be perceived using the five senses but are things nonetheless in that they have central identities or characteristics.

Abstract nouns are words for things that can’t be perceived using the five senses.
Abstract nouns are words for things that can’t be perceived using the five senses.

It’s easy to understand that chairs are nouns because people, who are also nouns, sit in them before eating dinner. Dinner is another noun, and so are the plates that keep the dinner from slopping onto the table, which is yet another noun. Nouns that can be recognized sensorially because they exist as objects in the three-dimensional world are more accurately called concrete nouns. They have physical presences that can be experienced through the five senses.

Life would be boring, however, if the world’s speakers were limited to conversations only about things that can be picked up, petted, put on, or otherwise directly experienced. Humans pride themselves on their intelligence, which is itself an abstract rather than concrete noun. Intelligence can’t be seen or heard. It has no perfume or texture and tastes like nothing at all, but it’s still an abstract noun that names something most people would say is real, knowable, and possibly even measurable.

Events are also very real; even though people create them, move through them, and document them through discussion or writing, the event itself is abstract. A celebration, a wedding, and a battle are simultaneously very real to the participants yet purely conceptual in that, even in the midst of them, they cannot be touched. They are real enough to be named and remembered, however, sometimes for years to come.

Not all abstract nouns name things that are real and knowable. The imagination — an abstract noun — allows entities that are nothing more than phantasmagoria — another abstract noun — to leap to mind through images — that’s right; this is another abstract noun. The writer who describes an exhausted angel’s bedraggled wings is not naming the actual details about something truly real. Yet, because these details, and the angel itself, are nameable, there is the sense that they are also knowable.

Without the abstraction of language, nouns themselves wouldn’t exist. Things would, but only as themselves. Unnamed, they couldn’t be held in the mind, recalled in conversation, or reflected upon in memory. Ironically, abstract nouns are the invisible playground in which their more concrete brethren romp.

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