July 18:  Ladder of Abstraction Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1939). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known works on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.  That same year he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976, and in 1981 he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

SIHayakawa.jpgAfter leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It’s mission, according to its web site, is “preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States” (1).

In his book Language in Thought and Action, Hayakawa popularized an amazing tool for writers.  Not a physical tool that can be bought in a hardware store, but a metaphorical tool to better understand how to use words more effectively.  It’s called the ladder of abstraction (2).

The ladder of abstraction is one way to visualize the range of language from the abstract to the concrete–from the general to the specific. On the top of the ladder are abstract ideas like success, education, or freedom; as we move down each rung of the ladder, the words become more specific and more concrete. When we reach the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction, we should find something concrete that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell.

Rung 6:  Education

Rung 5:  High School

Rung 4:  Math Department

Rung 3:  Algebra

Rung 2:  Algebra 2

Rung 1:  Mr. Johnson’s 4th-period Algebra 2 class

Notice, for example, the list above. Imagine that each is a rung of the ladder. On the 6th Rung is the abstract idea “Education.”  As we move down each rung, the words become more specific.  When we reach the bottom rung, we find a tangible and concrete phrase to represent the abstract idea.

Writers should use the ladder of abstraction as a mental model to remind themselves that good writing is grounded with a solid, concrete foundation. We certainly write about abstract ideas like love, education, and success all the time, but the best writing doesn’t just tell by remaining at the top or middle rungs of the ladder; instead, it climbs down to the bottom rung, to show the reader, using specific images, details, and examples (3).

A writer, for example, who is unfamiliar with the ladder of abstraction might write the following telling sentence:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today was a bit odd.

“Odd” is a subjective and abstract idea.  Using the ladder of abstraction allows the writer to craft a more showing description:

My substitute teacher in 4th period today began class by playing a medley of Beatles songs on his accordion, he demanded that we submit any questions we had in writing, and when I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil, he shouted, “I’m sick of your insane and insolent demands!!”  At the end of class, he wouldn’t dismiss us until the entire class sang the “Marine Corps Hymn.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lord of the Rungs
What concrete words come to your mind when you think of the abstract word “success”?  Select one of the abstract nouns listed below and brainstorm specific, showing details and examples of what the idea looks like, sounds like, or feels like in the real world.  Then breathe life into the abstract idea by describing a specific scene that illustrates the word using concrete nouns at the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction.  For a real challenge, try to not even use the abstract noun in your paragraph.  If you have done an effective job of showing rather than telling, your reader should be able to identify the abstract idea without being told.

curiosity, kindness, freedom, intelligence, stupidity, success, victory, defeat, bravery, diligence, creativity, education, loyalty

Quotation of the Day:  The ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is “ladder,” a specific tool you can see, hold in your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place you might break your leg.

The second word is “abstraction.” You can’t eat it or smell it or measure it. It is not easy to use as an example. It appeals not to the senses, but to the intellect. It is an idea that cries out for exemplification. -Roy Peter Clark (4)

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Hayakawa, S.I. Language in Thought and Action.

3-Backman, Brian.  Persuasion Points: 82 Strategic Exercises for Writing High-Scoring Persuasive Essays. Maupin House, 2010:  62.

4-Clark, Roy Peter. Writing Tool #13 Show and Tell