Meet the Abstract Noun

An Explanation of the Intangible Noun

Music and happiness
Music can bring happiness in a hurry--and that increase in good feelings can bring a decrease in stress!. Atsushi Yamada/Taxi Japan/Getty Images

In English grammar, an abstract noun is a noun or noun phrase that names an idea, event, quality or concept—for example, courage, freedom, progress, love, patience, excellence and friendship.  An abstract noun names something that can't be physically touched. Contrast that with a concrete noun.

According to "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language," abstract nouns are "typically non-observable and nonmeasurable.” But, as James Hurford explains, the distinction between abstract nouns and other common nouns "is relatively unimportant, as far as grammar is concerned." (James Hurford, "Grammar: A Student's Guide." Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Examples and Observations

  • "Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired."
    (Robert Frost)
  • "Her face, which was long and dark chocolate brown, had a thin sheet of sadness over it, as light but as permanent as the viewing gauze on a coffin."
    (Maya Angelou, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." Random House, 1969)
  • "Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties."
    (Erich Fromm)
  • Silence can be a source of great strength.
  • "Men say they love independence in a woman, but they don't waste a second demolishing it brick by brick."
    (Candice Bergen, quoted by Catherine Breslin in "The Mistress Condition." Dutton, 1976)
  • "When love is gone, there's always justice.
    And when justice is gone, there's always force.
    And when force is gone, there's always Mom.
    Hi, Mom!"
    (Laurie Anderson, "O Superman." 1981)
  • "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
    (Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish." "Unpopular Essays." Simon & Schuster Inc., 1950)
  • "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
    (Woody Allen, "My Speech to the Graduates." The New York Times, 1979)

The Nature of Abstract Nouns

"Abstract and concrete are usually defined together or in terms of each other.

The abstract is that which exists only in our minds, that which we cannot know through our senses. It includes qualities, relationships, conditions, ideas, theories, states of being, fields of inquiry and the like. We cannot know a quality such as consistency directly through our senses; we can only see or hear about people acting in ways that we come to label consistent."
(William Vande Kopple, "Clear and Coherent Prose." Scott Foresman & Co., 1989)

Countable and Uncountable Abstract Nouns

"Although abstract nouns tend to be uncountable (courage, happiness, news, tennis, training), many are countable (an hour, a joke, a quantity). Others can be both, often with shifts of meaning from general to particular (great kindness/many kindnesses)."
(Tom McArthur, "Abstract and Concrete." "The Oxford Companion to the English Language." Oxford University Press, 1992)

Inflection of Abstract Nouns

"[M]any abstract nouns are generally not inflected for number (lucks, nauseas) or they do not occur in the possessive (the commitment's time)."
(M. Lynne Murphy and Anu Koskela, "Key Terms in Semantics." Continuum, 2010)

The Grammatical Unimportance of Abstract Nouns

"[R]ecognizing abstract nouns is relatively unimportant, as far as grammar is concerned.

This is because there are few, if any, particular grammatical properties that affect just the set of abstract nouns. ... One suspects that the reason for the recurrent mention of abstract nouns is the clash between their (abstract) meanings and the traditional definition of a noun as the 'name of a person, place or thing.' The existence of obvious nouns such as liberty, action, sin and time is a sore embarrassment to such a definition, and the pragmatic response has been to apply a distinctive label to the problematic words."
(James R. Hurford, "Grammar: A Student's Guide." Cambridge University Press, 1994)

The Lighter Side of Abstract Nouns

"'It represents Discipline,' said Mr. Etherege. ... 'And to the uninstructed mind, Uniformity.' His abstract nouns were audibly furnished with capital letters.

'But the latter notion is fallacious.'
"'No doubt,' said Fen. He perceived that this incipient homily required punctuation rather than argument.
"'Fallacious,' Mr. Etherege proceeded, 'because the attempt to produce Uniformity inevitably accentuates Eccentricity. It makes Eccentricity, as it were, safe.'"
(Bruce Montgomery [aka Edmund Crispin], "Love Lies Bleeding." Vintage, 1948)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Meet the Abstract Noun." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-abstract-noun-1689051. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 9). Meet the Abstract Noun. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-abstract-noun-1689051 Nordquist, Richard. "Meet the Abstract Noun." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-abstract-noun-1689051 (accessed April 26, 2018).