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If I am referring to a number of concrete objects I can use multiple terms such as bodies, objects, things, etc.

If I am referring to a number of abstract concepts I can also use many terms such as ideas, concepts, principles...

Is there a noun that represents a step higher in the taxonomic hierarchy to represent both abstract and concrete things?

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closed as off-topic by tchrist, Phil Sweet, NVZ, curiousdannii, Rathony Jul 4 at 15:59

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. For help writing a good word or phrase request, see: About single word requests" – tchrist, Phil Sweet, NVZ, curiousdannii, Rathony
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

how about "nouns" – Kevin Dec 2 '11 at 20:16
@Kevin Not a bad suggestion, but I am not looking for a part of speech. – Andrew Hanlon Dec 2 '11 at 20:19
You have a few answers to get you started, but we're really trying to avoid using this site for "single word requests." If you have a particularly interesting problem to solve, all we ask is that you put a research effort into the question. See: meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/1654/… or meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2160/… – Robert Cartaino Dec 3 '11 at 2:25
@RobertCartaino I personally think that this is an interesting problem, and at least the three respondents did as well. My question was not asked as a 'single sentence' and has multiple avenues for discussion. It is also not easily googled. I believe this makes it a fair question. I would agree that this site should not be a dictionary for the lazy, but I do not think this falls into that category... But then I am not a moderator. Regards. – Andrew Hanlon Dec 5 '11 at 18:27
Reopened. Let's see how it goes. – Robert Cartaino Dec 5 '11 at 18:30
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Noun is just the grammatical equivalent of Entity, and that term might suit, depending on what you need it for. This is what Frawley says, in Linguistic Semantics, Lawrence Erlbaum 1992, p xvii, 533. [A college text in semantics; the class comes after Intro Ling -jl]

From Chapter 3, "Entities", pp 62-63. [Chapter 3 deals with nouns.
Chapter 4, "Events", deals with verbs, using much the same analyses. -jl]

3.11 Nouns and Entities: Formal and Notional Definitions.

"Any student reared in the Western grammatical tradition will say that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing and thus define a noun by its semantic representation. Two observations conspire to weed this view out of our untutored beliefs about language. First, there are many things that are nouns but not exactly persons, places, or things. 'Smoothness' is a noun, but it does not readily appear to represent a thing.

"Second, a noun is not a notional class, something defined by its conceptual content, but a form class, something defined by its structural or formal properties (Lyons 1966, 1968). Formally, a noun is identifiable because of what other categories and forms co-occur with it. Under this view, a noun is something that can be a subject (that which controls agreement with a verb) or something that takes certain modifiers, like a definite article. By these criteria, 'smoothness' is a noun, in spite of the variation in its notional content, because it co-occurs with the definite article: 'the smoothness of the wood'.


"But curiously, when the traditional notional definition ("A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing") is reversed, the definition turns out to be true. Nouns are not always persons, places, or things, but persons, places, and things always turn out to be nouns!

"Nouns do have purely formal properties because at the grammatical level they are contentlessly manipulated by syntax, just like any other category, but these formal properties are supported by overwhelmingly consistent semantic factors. Nouns incontrovertibly tend to encode entities, broadly construed."

  • Study guide here
  • Properties of Entities here
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Upvoted both this and the answer that suggests "things" because I think they both work. "Entity" is just a higher-register equivalent of "thing"; in formal/academic writing I would hesitate to use "thing", and "entity" would probably be the best bet. – alcas Dec 2 '11 at 21:26
Yeah. That's what I meant at the beginning by "depending on what you need it for". Context is everything for vocabulary choice. – John Lawler Dec 2 '11 at 21:40
I appreciate this answer, although the word (to me at least) evokes the notion of a physical embodiment. Am I alone in this 'familiar' understanding? – Andrew Hanlon Dec 2 '11 at 21:52
@ach: Not really; see Dictionary.com's definition of entity: "something that has a real existence". Now we're down to defining existence. Physical existence or theoretical existence? – Daniel Dec 5 '11 at 19:28
@ach: I think there are two readings to 'entity' one where it has 'physical embodiment, but also one that refers to really any instance of a coherent concept, like the number 7 (that is, 7 is an entity of sorts). – Mitch Dec 5 '11 at 19:28

Looking at the last word of your question, I am becoming increasingly sure that thing may be the closest single-word fit you will find for this definition. While it is generally applied to the material world, it can be applied to the conceptual as well, giving it a broader scope than terms such as object (solely material) and concept (solely abstract).

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I agree somewhat that 'thing' is abstract enough to represent both; however I feel that it lacks formality. – Andrew Hanlon Dec 2 '11 at 21:49

Ephemera, "transitory things", which is all things.

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Thank you for the suggestion, though I am not certain if the adjective 'transitory' actually does apply to all things. Abstract concepts (and concrete objects like the universe for that matter) often exist without the inherent notion of a time span. – Andrew Hanlon Dec 5 '11 at 18:35

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