Abstract Nouns: Definition and Use Made Clear

Abstract nouns are defined as a type of noun that you can’t see, touch or otherwise directly experience by any of the human senses. These nouns represent an aspect, concept, idea, experience, state of being, trait, quality, feeling, or other entity that can’t be experienced with the five senses.

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What Is an Abstract Noun?

A noun is a person, place, thing, concept, or idea. There are many types of nouns, including concrete and abstract nouns. Concrete nouns are people, places, or things that can be experienced by one of the five senses. Abstract nouns are concepts or ideas that a person cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Instead, abstract nouns are intangible concepts or ideas.

The word abstract refers to something that exists apart from concrete existence, which is why the term is used to describe nouns that can't be directly perceived in a sensory way. For example, freedom cannot be directly experienced by any of the five senses, though it is, in fact, a noun.

Recognizing When a Noun Is Abstract

It can be difficult to recognize when a noun is abstract because there are so many words that can function as different parts of speech. For example, some words might function as verbs in some cases and abstract nouns in other cases. The words love and taste are examples.

  • love as a verb - I love my husband. (In this sentence, the word love expresses an action, so it is acting as a verb.)
  • love as a noun - Send them my love. (In this sentence, the word love functions as a noun. It is an abstract noun because love itself cannot be directly observed via five senses.)
  • taste as a verb - Sarah could taste cilantro in the salsa. (In this sentence, the auxiliary verb "could" functions with "taste" to illustrate an action.)
  • taste as a noun - Sarah has great taste in clothes. (In this sentence, taste functions as an abstract noun. Taste refers to Sarah's preferences.)

Keep in mind that when a word represents an action, it is a verb. When a word represents a person, place, thing, concept or idea, it is a noun. If it can't be directly perceived, then it is an abstract noun.

Common Abstract Noun Examples in Sentences

Abstract nouns can be countable or uncountable (mass). They can also be singular or possessive. Abstract nouns follow the same grammar rules as other nouns. Consider a few common examples, broken out by category and paired with sample sentences. For even more words that are abstract nouns, see examples of abstract nouns.

Emotions and Feelings

Words used to express what a person's emotional state is or how the individual is feeling are abstract nouns.

  • agony - I have been in a constant state of agony since injuring my back.
  • disgust - She could not hide her disgust.
  • elation - I can't describe the state of elation I was in after being offered the promotion.
  • exuberance - Her exuberance is contagious.
  • hopelessness - I'm trying not to give in to hopelessness.
  • indifference - His indifference is shocking.

States and Attributes

Some abstract nouns describe a person's state of mind or an attribute that a person has.

  • determination - I am approaching the job interview with a sense of determination.
  • dotage - Now that she's in her dotage, my grandmother doesn't hesitate to voice her opinion.
  • confusion - Things have been in a state of confusion at work since the office manager resigned.
  • optimism - Her optimism is refreshing.
  • pessimism - His pessimism is discouraging.
  • troubled - She is a troubled young lady.

Ideas, Concepts and Ideals

Abstract nouns can also represent various concepts, ideas or even ideals.

  • camaraderie - There is great camaraderie among the team.
  • hospitality - I greatly appreciate the hospitality you have shown to me.
  • sensitivity - This issue needs to be handled with great sensitivity.
  • leisure - Everyone deserves a bit of leisure.
  • education - There is no substitute for a good education.
  • tact - When dealing with delicate situations, tact is of utmost importance.

Movements and Events

Abstrict nouns are often used to name events or different types of movements.

  • activism - For some, activism is a way of life.
  • commencement - Will you be attending my commencement?
  • future - What are your goals for the future?
  • moment - Qualifying for the Olympics represents an incredible moment in an athlete's life.
  • performance - That was quite a performance she put on.
  • progress - There has been much progress over the last year.

Forming Abstract Nouns Using Suffixes

Abstract forms of nouns are very common and an important part of communication. In many cases, these nouns are derived by adding a suffix or making another alteration to a root word. For example, the word "child" is a concrete noun. However, "childhood" is an intangible state, so that word is an abstract noun.

The suffixes listed below are often used to form abstract nouns, as illustrated by a few examples for each one.

  • -acy - adequacy; bureaucracy
  • -ance - defiance; intolerance
  • -ism - favoritism; racism
  • -ity - civility; variability
  • -ment - ailment; argument
  • -ness - fitness; fondness
  • -ence - deference; violence
  • -ship - kinship; scholarship
  • -tion - coalition; devotion
  • - ty - certainty; unity

Using Abstract vs. Concrete Nouns in Writing

Abstract nouns name things that can't be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched. They're often used to convey meaning, from everyday conversation to creative, academic or technical writing. It's important to keep in mind that abstract nouns can mean different things to different people. To one person, good taste may mean an eclectic and original style. To another, good taste may mean a clean and modern look. That's why context clues are so important. Learn about the types and importance of context in writing so you'll be able to effectively incorporate abstract nouns into your work.