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What's an Abject Lesson vs. an Object Lesson?

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With MAs in classics and mythology, I've got one foot in the ancient world.

The medieval symbol of the pelican piercing its breast to nurse its young was a biologically inaccurate but powerful object lesson.

The medieval symbol of the pelican piercing its breast to nurse its young was a biologically inaccurate but powerful object lesson.

Correct Form: "Object Lesson"

As a writer, I sometimes look up words and phrases to make sure that I've picked one with just the right shade of meaning. I was quite puzzled when I looked up "object lesson" on Google and found people talking about "abject lessons."

What are those? I have a strong grasp of English, yet I'd never heard the phrase before. Are they some kind of lesson in humiliation and deprivation, the kind of ordeal Job underwent in the Bible?

It turns out that "abject lesson" is an eggcorn, a special form of malaprop (wrong word usage) caused by two English words sounding about the same in a particular dialect. In this case, the culprit might be Indian English, which pronounces the "a" in "about" and "abject" very much like an "o" sound.

The way to cure oneself of a malaprop is to learn the meanings of both words.

Abject (Adjective): Pitiful, Wretched, Vile, Untouchable

Abject is an adjective describing something or someone in a wretched condition. That condition could be poverty, weakness, helplessness, or destruction. By extension, abject can sometimes mean "contemptible, disgusting, groveling," so one can be an "abject sinner" or give an "abject apology." Abject spans the spectrum from pathetic (a state to be pitied) to despicable (a state to be shunned or scorned).

Members of the "untouchable" caste were abject in every sense of the word, scorned and considered debased as often as they were pitied.

Object (Noun): A Thing, Goal, Purpose, Target

One definition of an object is just a physical thing: an "unidentified flying object" is an unknown thing that's assumed to be real and solid.

A second definition of object is a thing you aim for, a purpose, goal, intention, or target. For example: "The object of this exercise is to improve your spine's flexibility."

I believe the phrase "object lesson" blends both meanings of "object."

Examples of Eggcorns

Definition of "Object Lesson"

An "object lesson" is an example: a thing that serves the purpose of teaching a lesson. It can also be a demonstration, such as a scientific demonstration, that proves or illustrates a principle.

A science museum, for example, is basically a collection of objects—things, displays—that teach you a lesson.

Darwin Award stories (real or invented) are examples of behavioral object lessons. They recount stupid things people do to get themselves killed, with the goal of teaching us to use judgment and critical thinking. "Object lesson" is often used nowadays for one particular kind of lesson: never do this! In other words, object lessons often serve as a warning.

Some object lessons are symbols. The medieval bestiary was a collection of illustrated stories about real and mythical beasts, each one a lesson in a particular virtue. The pelican was fancifully portrayed on her nest, piercing her breast with her beak to nourish her young with her own blood. This biologically incorrect symbol served as an object lesson of selflessness for parents and clergy and was also a symbol of Christ.

While some object lessons, such as Hans Christian Anderson's story "The Little Match Girl," are abject, the phrase "abject lesson" really doesn't make sense as a "thing that teaches through example."

Remember that abject = "wretched," while object = "thing, goal, purpose," and you should be able to avoid this mistake. Object lessons are things that have a purpose: to teach. They are not lessons designed to arouse pity.

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Mickey on December 07, 2019:


masud on June 15, 2019:

excellent...i really enjoyed this article thnx very much

Kathy on May 22, 2018:

This has been an interesting (plain 'ol) lesson in object vs. abject. I thought I was well on my way until I read the comments. ;)

Heather Lynne on January 14, 2017:

An Abject Lesson is a 'Hard lesson someone probably didn't want to learn in the first place.

Lloyd on December 04, 2016:

As a Canadian, I have been using "abject lesson" for years when describing examples that perfectly describe why you don't do something a certain way. Darwin Award winners often provide us with abject lessons. I hear others using "abject lesson" on occasion. I have never heard or seen anyone use "object lesson" til reading a New York Times article today. I was puzzled by its use and a search led me here.

Keith H. on May 18, 2016:

I'll state the obvious. English usage changes over time, it can be difficult to keep pace. I used the words abject lesson this morning, I wondered if I was using it the right way. I was using the two words to describe corruption in government.

Todd K. on March 23, 2016:

An abject lesson, as pointed out earlier, is a terrible or horrific example. Such as, "The slaughter of the innocents was an abject lesson in cruelty."

I suggest the author do a bit more research before coming to erroneous conclusions.

English-so-I-know-English on March 01, 2016:

Well...That's wrong actually. An 'object lesson' is two nouns, one must be used as a descriptive noun if they are to be used as a single descriptive phrase. So either it's a lesson about a mysterious 'object', or the phrase is quite wrong anyway, and should be 'objective lesson'. 'Abject lesson' is perfectly fine. It is used in common speech to describe a terrible example of something, in a similar way to how the phrase 'abject poverty' relates to terrible hardship. Why is this so confusing?

Ellen (author) from California on September 30, 2013:

Certainly, you can put almost any adjective together with any noun. However, when you change one word of a common, well-known phrase to a homophone that means something different but sounds almost the same, you're sowing confusion. You're turning an argument about denotation into one on syntax.

Tad Perry on September 30, 2013:

I think this link itself is an object lesson in hyper-correction. "Abject" is an adjective. "Lesson" is a noun. Of course you can put them together meaningfully. If you don't know that there can indeed be an "abject lesson" in our language, you probably don't know it as well as you claim to.

Job on December 17, 2012:

I think object lesson sounds idiotic and superfluous - drop the "object" from the term and you have the same meaning....

Ellen (author) from California on November 12, 2012:

Karla: right, that site says it's an Indian English idiom. A fairly recent one, according to other studies. That seems to back up the theory that some English scholars have put forward, that Indian English pronunciation of "object" and "abject" sound the same, so that's how the malaprop got started.

Karla B on November 12, 2012:

Ellen (author) from California on September 04, 2012:

i'd love to see an etymology study of the two phrases. When I researched this article a year ago, I read that instances of "abject lesson" seemed to be very recent, suggesting a modern malaprop. It is also claimed that the phrase is more commonfrom countries with English as a second language, usually British English, whose a and o sounds ar much closer than in American English. But it would take a detailed study of instances of both phrases to draw any certain conclusions, and I confess that's a bit more legwork than I'm willing to undertake!

Philip on September 04, 2012:

I have heard and just both orally, but in writing "abject" I had cause to reconsider and found this site and the link above. Interesting and reasonable as the suggested entemology of the phrase is, I suspect this is one that has escaped the bounds of simple Pandoran grammar and enjoys a life of its own. An "abject lesson" is now a terrible and humbling lesson, not simply an entertaining malaprop (the "eloquent sufficiency" comes to mind).

moneycop from JABALPUR on March 14, 2012:

interstig and creative as i use it in my poems


kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on March 14, 2012:

Quite a useful hub you have put together. As a learner of English as a Second Language, I am always on the lookout for well-explained articles about English words. I think I found another one in your hub! Voting it up and useful.

Judi Brown from UK on March 14, 2012:

Interesting hub - I've not heard people speaking of "abject lessons" either - only "abject apologies". All explained very clearly, as usual!

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