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I am a native Danish speaker. The Danish definition of the verb abstract translates to "disregarding the subordinate details in an effort to build a general, overarching notion of something". Thus, the verb gives connotations of something elevated, refined or pure. When translating my dictionary suggests "abstract", "disregard", or "abstract away from". The British National Corpus has almost no entries for the term "abstract away", while my gut felling tells me that the connotations associated with "disregard" is not quite right (i.e. "ignore" or "make light of").

Example:

We abstract away from the specific mechanism and instead consider a general setting, where ...

I am open to rewriting the entire sentence, but I am unsure how to capture the feeling of something elevated, refined or pure, i.e. lifting it to a higher level. Or can I write "abstract away from"?

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  • In English, abstract in this sense refers to making a summary of a work such as a scientific paper so that a researcher will know whether it would be useful to read the whole thing. It doesn't have any connotations of refinement or purity. – Kate Bunting Oct 19 '20 at 12:13
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    I'm not sure what 'In Danish, the verb abstract translates to "disregarding the subordinate details in an effort to build a general, overarching notion of something" ' means. // However, the way I'd put "disregard the subordinate details in an effort to build a general, overarching notion of something" is "give the quintessential details [of a matter]". Quintessence has meanings including 'central sense, essence' and 'a refined extract' (see Lexico). // 'Abstract away from' is at best unidiomatic. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '20 at 16:54
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    We move away from the specific mechanism and instead consider a general setting, where ...* Also "disregard / gloss over / set aside / put to one side the specific mechanism" – Greybeard Oct 19 '20 at 18:58
  • @EdwinAshworth. You are right, and I've edited the sentence to clarify that it is the definition of the verb abstract which I translate. – bonna Oct 20 '20 at 7:34
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The verb to abstract is used in English in the way that the OP describes. Even though this way of using is likely to be found only in the contexts of theoretical nature, it is listed in the widely available, general-purpose dictionaries, such as Lexico

abstract something from

Consider something theoretically or separately from (something else)

‘to abstract science and religion from their historical context can lead to anachronism’

and Merriam-Webster

abstract

to consider apart from application to or association with a particular instance

This way of using the verb calls for the preposition from. While saying to abstract away from would not be incorrect, away seems redundant, as it doesn't really add anything to to abstract from.

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This is an interesting and difficult question. The first thing to say is that the use of 'abstract' as a verb is uncommon in English. The past form, 'abstracted' is applied as a description of someone whose mind is on other things, or removed from the world around them. I normally expect that Danes know English at least as well as I do. The Danish word is closer to its Latin root 'abstraho' than the English, which reflects the supine form of that verb, which means 'I draw/drag away' or 'remove'.

The nearest I can get to your fascinating Danish usage is the noun 'abstract', which is an academic term for the summary of an academic paper or thesis or dissertation, which summarises the essence of the paper, without any of the detailed arguments beyond their general character. So it does not apply to the sort of thing for which you are looking either. It is something 'withdrawn' or 'taken away' from it. Of course the adjective 'abstract' gets us a bit closer. Abstract things are removed from everyday tangible reality. We talk, similarly, of abstract art, and we can certainly talk of discussing things or plans 'in the abstract', meaning in a theoretical way.

Looking at Roget's wonderful Thesaurus, I do not get much further. The verb can be used for to 'take away' 'shorten' or 'be concise'.

The full Oxford English Dictionary gets me a little bit closer to what you are looking for.

To withdraw, deduct, remove or take away something. So Boyle in 1685 gives us: "having <dephlagoned?> spirit of salt and gently abstracted the whole spirit, there remaineth in the retort a ???? substance." (my apologies that my failing eyesight and magnifying glass cannot get me to see every word in this miniaturised OED!).

In 1690, John Locke in his *On Human Understanding *is saying:

Truth and Certainty of Moral Discourses abstracts from the Lives of Men."

This is getting a bit nearer the mark, but is still not quite there and takes us back nearly 350 years!.

Better is the definition:

To separate in mental conception; to consider apart from the physical manifestation.

This surely is on the money for you. Citations go back the the sixteenth century and the latest is from the late 19th century, and they apply to logic and reasoning.

To abstract is to separate the qualities common to all individuals from the peculiarities of each individual. (Jevons Elements of Logic 1870)

So I am afraid I have failed and I cannot suggest an alternative word for the Danish. Could it be, I wonder, that this is one of those beautiful places where one language (here Danish) has a word that has a useful meaning for which another language (here English) has no equivalent?

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  • I am sure that there is something desperately wrong with the answer above. The mystery is, however, that I have a minus-one (-1) against the above answer, but my score record tells me I have plus-six. I suppose it is the result of 10-4 or something like that. It doesn't matter, but i am baffled. – Tuffy Oct 21 '20 at 13:58

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