Using abstract nouns and avoiding indirect constructions

Abstract nouns can suit particular subjects, but can sometimes be vague. In indirect constructions, they may express meaning in a roundabout way and make writing longwinded.

This section covers:

Abstract nouns

An abstract noun expresses an intangible idea or broad concept (eg bureaucracy, equipment, elevation, initiative), whereas a concrete noun describes a physical object (eg elephant, plate, spade, towel). General nouns refer to classes of objects, concepts, animals or people (eg fruit, livestock, program, team):

more abstract    less abstract [general]    concrete [specific]
equipment  →  tools  →  saw, hammer, spade
furniture  →  table  →  dining table, card table, billiard table

You can select nouns from different levels of abstraction to suit your topic. The choice depends on the context, and how much detail is needed:

Beverages [abstract noun] will be available at the workshop.
Tea, coffee and juice [concrete nouns] will be served at session breaks.

Many abstract nouns are useful when they capture a broad idea (eg democracy, freedom, infrastructure, literacy). But some add words to a sentence without adding meaning. In this case, you can strengthen your writing by taking out the abstract nouns:

Teaching heart health is an important endeavour [abstract noun].
Teaching heart health is important.

Our initiative [abstract noun] aimed to boost enrolment numbers.
We aimed to boost enrolment numbers.

The practice [abstract noun] of supplying milk to primary school children continued until 1973.
Milk was supplied to primary school children until 1973.

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Indirect constructions

Indirect constructions often use a type of abstract noun that is formed by turning a direct verb into an abstract process. This is called nominalisation.

Indirect nouns are those that are derived from verbs. For example:

  • conclusion (from the verb conclude)
  • development (from the verb develop)
  • discussion (from the verb discuss)
  • investigation (from the verb investigate)
  • maintenance (from the verb maintain).

Verbs in indirect constructions express action indirectly. They include relational verbs such as constitute, involve; existential verbs such as exist, happen; and process verbs such as conduct, produce.

Sentences with indirect constructions can be greatly improved by turning the indirect nouns into the verbs they deserve to be, and deleting the indirect verbs:

They reached [indirect verb] a conclusion [indirect noun] that the position should be readvertised.
They concluded [direct verb] that the position should be readvertised.
The council has conducted [indirect verb] an investigation [indirect noun] into the subcontracting of waste disposal.
The council has investigated [direct verb] the subcontracting of waste disposal.
The development [indirect noun] of the animal welfare code was completed [indirect verb].
The animal welfare code was developed [direct verb].
A change of behaviour [indirect noun] in the rats happened [indirect verb] over 3 days.
The rats’ behaviour changed [direct verb] over 3 days.

These sentences may be further improved, depending on the context, by turning them into an active form (see Balancing active and passive voice for more information on activating your language). This makes the writing more engaging:

The data were analysed by Drs Wang and Zao.
Drs Wang and Zao analysed the data.

The active construction can also add the actor or agent back into the sentence, if they have been left out:

The animal welfare code was developed.
The Safety Committee developed the animal welfare code.

When rewording sentences to replace indirect nouns and verbs, you can use either active or passive constructions:

Example (indirect)

Rewrite (direct)

Restoration of the building was completed.

The building was restored. [passive]

The owners restored the building. [active]

Lymph node dissection was performed.

Lymph nodes were dissected. [passive]

We dissected the lymph nodes. [active]

Surveys were conducted to find out the food preferences of children.

The food preferences of children were surveyed. [passive]

We surveyed the food preferences of children. [active]

The occurrence of high levels of pesticide in stored grain was noted.

High levels of pesticide were found in the stored grain. [passive]

The stored grain had high levels of pesticide. [active]

A controlled trial demonstrated that the intervention produced a 43% improvement in behaviour, significant reductions in staff stress and improvements in staff attitude.

A controlled trial demonstrated that the intervention improved behaviour by 43%, significantly reduced staff stress and improved staff attitude.

Did you know? An ‘indirect verb’ is not the same as a ‘weak verb’.

In grammar, the definition of weak and strong verbs is about how the past tense of the verb is formed.

Weak verbs (also called regular verbs) form the past tense by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form (eg ask > asked, smile > smiled, talk > talked).

Strong verbs (also called irregular verbs) form the past tense in various ways, but most often by changing the vowel of the base form (eg give > gave, run > ran, speak > spoke).

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