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

Updated on March 14, 2012

An Object Lesson: The Pelican

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. | Source

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

The Ants Are My Friends: Misheard Lyrics, Malapropisms, Eggcorns, and Other Linguistic Gaffes
The Ants Are My Friends: Misheard Lyrics, Malapropisms, Eggcorns, and Other Linguistic Gaffes

One of a number of funny books reporting actual examples of misheard words and phrases that result in humorous nonsense. (Mostly song lyrics, in this case.)


Definition of "Object Lesson"

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

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

Darwin Award stories (real or invented) are examples behavioral object lessons. The 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 to 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 of the "Little Match Girl," are abject, the phrase "abject lesson" really doesn't make sense as a "thing which 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 which have a purpose: to teach. They are not lessons designed to arouse pity.


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      Heather Lynne 13 months ago

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

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      Lloyd 14 months ago

      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.

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      Keith H. 21 months ago

      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.

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      Todd K. 23 months ago

      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.

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      English-so-I-know-English 24 months ago

      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?

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      Ellen 4 years ago from California

      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.

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      Tad Perry 4 years ago

      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.

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      Job 5 years ago

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

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      Ellen 5 years ago from California

      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.

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      Karla B 5 years ago

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      Ellen 5 years ago from California

      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!

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      Philip 5 years ago


      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).

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      moneycop 5 years ago from JABALPUR

      interstig and creative as i use it in my poems


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      kerlynb 5 years ago from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^

      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.

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      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

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