Concrete Language, Sensory Language

Learn to distinguish concrete, sensory language from abstract language so you can access the readability of your work or the work of others. Review research and theory on how to use concrete, sensory language in a rhetorically effective manner.
Concrete, Sensory Language empowers readers, listeners, users to better understand the writer's message. Concrete, Sensory Language empowers readers, listeners, users to better understand the writer's message.

What is Concrete Language, Sensory Language?

Concrete, Sensory Language is

  • language that references specific places, events, people, and tangible topics
  • language that invokes the readers’ senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound)
  • an attribute of prose associated with clarity and simplicity.

Concrete, sensory language is the antithesis of abstract language, which tends to be intangible and metaphysical.

Related Concepts: Description; Code Switching; Diction; Figurative Language; Given to New Contract; Register; Vague Language; Writer-Based Prose Style


Why Does Concrete, Sensory Language Matter?

Concrete, sensory language provides the level of detail, the level of specificity, that readers, listeners, users . . . need to understand and properly imagine and interpret a text.

Strategic use of concrete, sensory language is a defining characteristic of reader-based prose. Inexperienced writers often struggle to imagine the descriptive details readers need to follow along

develop the register, the rhetorical stance, needed to communicate in home, school, and workplace discourse.

Concrete language doesn’t require as much mental processing on the part of the reader, listener, user . . . as abstract language. For instance, if you use the word chair in a text, you know your readers will have a pretty clear idea in their mind what a chair is.

In general, texts that employ concrete, sensory language are more readable than texts that rely primarily on abstract language, vague, overgeneralized language.

How Can I Revise My Language to be More Concrete, More Sensory?

  1. Replace abstract language with words that have clear, direct, and precise meaning.
    • Abstract: The case sought to establish equality for 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.
  2. 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.

Hayakawa, S. I. (Samuel Ichiyé), 1906-1992. Language in Thought and Action. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Ohmann, Richard (December  1979). “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language.” College English 41(4), 390-97.

Plain Language: Beyond a Movement.