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What is the difference between a material and a concrete noun?? Are 'Promise, truth, lie and comment' countable Abstract nouns?? What others examples can be given for the same.

  • A "material noun" is a mass noun which denotes a physical substance (i.e. - what a thing is made of), whereas a "concrete noun" is a noun denoting a material object rather than an abstract quality, state, or action (i.e. - the thing itself). Promises, truth, lies, and comments are all countable, but they're abstract nouns (not concrete, because you can't touch them, weigh them, etc.). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '17 at 15:20
  • @FumbleFingers isn't the line between these rather fuzzy? For example, an "item" can be either a physical or a conceptual object. Or "code" which can be a physical document or an abstract process. I understand its use as a rough model, but I don't see it as universal. Also, aside from the terms used isn't this a general linguistic concept and not unique to English? – Andrew Mar 15 '17 at 16:05
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    @Andre: Ultimately, the line between anything is "fuzzy". In reality, nothing is truly black or white - everything's just different shades of grey. But we often find it useful to characterise any given real-world example as being (more or less strongly) associated with one end or the other of some relevant continuum (linguistically, cline, I believe). But I certainly don't accept the claim in the answer given below that because a promise could be "sensed" (when "instantiated" as sound or writing), that makes it a concrete noun. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '17 at 16:21
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    What is useful about typologies is centers, not boundaries. – Jeff Morrow Dec 26 '17 at 22:56
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The conventional definition of a concrete noun is something that we can detect with our physical senses: We can see, hear, touch, taste or smell them. There are several problems with this definition, for example nobody would suggest that music is concrete, but we can hear it.

Fumblefingers has proposed a better definition- things that have mass. This is not a sure-fire way of classifying things, though, because a scientist would say that light has mass: he or she can prove that experimentally that it has mass and, for a given colour, can calculate accurately how much each photon weighs. An artist, however, would say that light is abstract.

Scientists have long dealt with this kind of dichotomy of perspective, for example with wave-particle duality: they view light as either particles or waves, depending on what kind of behaviour they wish to predict. Maybe we should look at why exactly we want to classify things as concrete or abstract (what behaviour we want to predict), then we can identify the best way of classifying them.

We use countable and uncountable nouns differently, for example we use a for countable nouns but generally not for uncountable nouns. What differences in usage are there for concrete and abstract nouns? Absolutely none. I can only think of two things, neither related to usage, that give value to the concept of an abstract noun.

First, when we teach grammar and we want to explain what a noun is, it's easy to explain what a concrete noun is: it's a person, place or thing. We need abstract nouns to explain about all of the other nouns- the things that we cannot touch.

Second, when we wish to communicate with people from other cultures, we have to bear in mind that the meanings of concrete nouns are generally communicable, but those of abstract nouns vary between cultures. I had lived in Egypt for eight years before I came across a word for debt: it's an alien concept.

Maybe you can come up with other ways that absrtact adds value, but as far as I am concerned it is an interesting theoretical concept that is of transient practical value for people learning a language. It's definitely not worth splitting hairs over definitions.

As I mentioned earlier, countable is a much more useful concept because it affects how we construct a sentence. Many nouns, though, can be both countable and uncountable: there is duality here. How do we handle that? We proceed as scentists do, and use the appropriate model for the kind of meaning that we want to convey. Looking at promise, for example:

The air was full of promise - uncountable.
He made me a promise - countable.

A useful guiding principle is whether the thing you want to describe is atomic: this comes from Greek, and means something that you can't cut. If you can cut something in two and it's no longer the same- its nature has changed- it's countable.

If you take a whole fish and cut it in two: its nature changes: it is no longer a fish. The whole fish was countable. If you take a pieces of fish meat and cut it in two, you have two smaller pieces, but the nature of the fish meat in this context is unchanged. The fish meat is uncountable.

You can apply the atomicity rule to abstract concepts too: the first promise is a general concept, and its nature would be unchanged if you cut it in two: it will still be a general concept, so it is uncountable. The second promise would be of little value if you cut it in two, so its nature has changed: it is countable.

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Abstract nouns are things that can't be physically sensed, while concrete nouns can be physically sensed. For example, the word 'comment' is a concrete noun because you can hear a verbal comment, or see a written comment. The word 'hope' on the other hand you can't see or hear physically, so that word is abstract. A 'promise' is more likely than not a concrete noun because you can generally hear or see it. The 'truth' or a 'lie', on the other hand, is generally an idea that isn't material and is thus abstract; however, if someone writes a statement and refers to it as a 'truth' or 'lie', then that usage makes the noun concrete. Some other examples of abstract nouns are 'desire', 'hate', or 'love'.

  • From your source: "Abstract nouns name things you cannot see, hear, smell, taste or fell." You can hear a promise and see or hear a comment, thus they aren't abstract. – dogog Mar 15 '17 at 15:30
  • You could also have a promise that isn't physically sensible, for example, "a promise to myself" which would make the word abstract. But, if you're discussing a promise you made to someone else where you said, "I promise I'll help you." Now the word promise has become something concrete. – dogog Mar 15 '17 at 15:33
  • Not so. The word promise in I promise I'll help you is a verb, which in this context we could think of as representing an action. You can force the verb into a noun as a gerund (His promising didn't help me), but unquestionably that leads to an abstract noun form, whether you call it an action, an idea, or whatever. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '17 at 15:50
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    People quite naturally say things like He felt shame. The defining characteristic isn't really whether you can see, feel something. It's more a matter of whether you can touch or weigh it (does it have mass, physical existence?). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 15 '17 at 15:57

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