Abstract (pronunciation and meaning)

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The word abstract is actually several words. They are related, but each belongs to a separate word class. The pronunciations of these separate word classes is different.

  • The noun, 'an abstract, is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable: 'ABS-tract' (IPA: /ˈæbs trækt/). An abstract, in academic circles, is most usually the brief summary of an article or other piece of research placed at the front to allow a reader of the Journal, etc, to judge whether the whole article is worth reading. (Its etymological origin is in the Latin meaning 'drawn from or out of'.
  • The adjective abstract is pronounced like the noun, 'ABS-tract' (IPA: /ˈæbs trækt/)). It basically means 'taken away or out of or from' something, but many more technical meanings develop from the idea of 'taken away from reality.
    • Abstract art is painting, etc, that does not try to represent the real world;
    • abstract thought; is that which deals with symbols and ideas rather than concrete reality;
    • abstract nouns are nouns that name ideas and other things that are not tangible.
    • Abstract ideas are most often those concerned with general principles underlying many examples in the real world, like 'evil' and 'virtue'.
  • The verb 'to abstract' has the stress on the second syllable: 'abs-TRACT' (IPA: /æbs ˈtrækt/). It means 'to take away from', and in this sense is similar in meaning to the cognate 'subtract' and 'distract'. It can mean 'to draw out of', and in Chemistry can mean 'to separate out of [a mixture] by distillation or boiling off [a surrounding liquid]'.
This pattern of shifting stress in words that look identical but belong to two separate word classes is quite common in English.
Quirk (1985) (Appendix I.56 B) describes the most common: "When verbs of two syllables are converted into nouns, the stress is sometimes shifted from the second to the first syllable. The first syllable, typically a Latin prefix, often has a reduced vowel /ə/ in the verb but a full vowel in the noun: He was con-VICT-ed (IPA: /kən ˈvɪkt ɪd/) of theft, and so became a CON vict (IPA: /ˈkɒn vɪkt/)" [AWE's rendition of IPA].
There follows a list of some 57 "words having end-stress as verbs but initial stress as nouns in Br[itish] E[nglish]." Note that "in Am[erican] E[nglish], many have initial stress as verbs also". Quirk's list is the foundation of AWE's category:shift of stress. Additions have been made from, amongst others, Fowler, 1926-1996.