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By Susan Carter

Doctoral theses are long. In the writing of them, you want your reader to persevere and more: you want them to hang in closely, so that they can follow you. So the writing needs to be clear and not fuzzy, as when, for example, abstract or theoretical terms blur clarity. Terms may be so vague that readers disengage. ‘Stove’ is concrete and visible; ‘domestic appliance’ is broad, harder to envision other than lined up in a store. Using broad abstracts when there is an exact concrete option will make writing fuzzy. Generally, the more a reader can see in their mind’s eye what you mean, the more closely they follow you. One route to best possible precision is to think about the function of nouns and the function of verbs. Different grammatical functions mean different implications for verbal and nominal abstract terms.

Nouns are substantive. They have presence. But they can’t do anything without verbs. Grammatically, nouns are static. Verbs lack substance, but they get nouns up and running. Without nouns, verbs are just an electric current without a light bulb. They exert their own presence only by animating nouns. The verbs drive; they need a noun to do it with.

So is your abstract concept a noun or a verb? When you are in a research topic that is bogged down in abstract terms, you might need to labour at precision. That nouns and verbs have different grammatical functions means that they bring their own influence to your abstract, complex or theoretical ideas.

Theory terms may be verbal as well as nominal. We can ‘other’ the people we don’t quite trust and they will notice our bias. Theories around ‘being’ view identity a little differently than when it is described nominally. Pondering over a troublesome abstraction, you might ask is it substantive or is it a ‘doing or being’ concept?

I think this works with the overall thesis production too. Often we begin thinking about research and thesis with the nouns. A mind-map is usually of nouns. Then you get into structure when you bring on the verbs that drive and connect, driving the nouns into contributing to an argument, the thesis. You are likely to begin by feeling at the start of a doctorate that the substance matters most and realize at the end of it that it is the drive of ideas through the substance of your thesis that actually gives you the thesis.

If you are plagued by the bunches of abstract nouns in your topic, or if you are a style fanatic, you will find Helen Sword’s work useful. Here are two commentaries from her, one on nouns, and the other on verbs. This is by no means all that she has to say on these two grammar forms, and there is more besides. When she moves on to prepositions, you know you really are in the presence of a grammatician with tenacity.

After that gothic look at nouns, try Sword’s article on mutant verbs, which you will find by clicking here

I’m sure that there are other ways to approach abstract precision. Do you work in an area that trades in abstract concepts? Any suggestions?