Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives
Adjectives describe qualities (characteristics) of nouns.
- Some qualities can vary in intensity or grade (for example: rather hot, hot, very hot; hot, hotter, the hottest).
The adjective hot is gradable.
- Other qualities cannot vary in intensity or grade because they are:
- extremes (for example: freezing)
- absolutes (for example: dead)
- classifying (for example: nuclear)
The adjectives freezing, dead and nuclear are non-gradable.
A gradable adjective can be used with "grading adverbs" that vary the adjective's grade or intensity. Look at these examples:
a little, dreadfully,
fairly, hugely, immensely, intensely, rather, reasonably, slightly, unusually, very
angry, big, busy, clever, cold, deep, fast, friendly, good, happy, high, hot, important, long, popular, rich, strong, tall, warm, weak, young
"Gradable adjectives" are also called "qualitative adjectives". "Grading adverbs" are also called "submodifiers".
A gradable adjective can also have comparative and superlative forms:
- big, bigger, the biggest
- hot, hotter, the hottest
- important, more important, the most important
Look at these example sentences:
- My teacher was very happy with my homework.
- That website is reasonably popular. But this one is more popular.
- He said that France was a little cold and Denmark was rather cold. But Sweden was the coldest.
The adjective dead is non-gradable because it is an absolute. Dead is dead. We cannot be more or less dead. One person cannot be "deader" than another. Other absolutes include: correct, unique, perfect
A non-gradable adjective cannot be used with grading adverbs:
It was rather freezing outside.
The dog was very dead.
He is investing in slightly nuclear energy.
Non-gradable adjectives do not normally have comparative and superlative forms:
more freezing, the most freezing
deader, the deadest
more nuclear, the most nuclear
Often, non-gradable adjectives are used alone:
- It was freezing outside.
- The dog was dead.
- He is investing in nuclear energy.
Don't try to learn lists of gradable and non-gradable adjectives! It's better to understand what makes an adjective gradable or non-gradable. This is a matter of logic and common sense. Most native-speakers have never heard of gradable and non-gradable adjectives. They just "feel" that it doesn't make sense to say "
fairly excellent" or " very unique". You probably have the same idea in your language.
However, a non-gradable adjective can be used with "non-grading adverbs" (which usually just give the adjective extra impact), for example:
Here are some example sentences with non-gradable adjectives:
- Her exam results were absolutely awful. She will have to take the exam again.
- Is there anything like it in the world? It must be virtually unique.
- It starts an essentially chemical reaction.
Adjectives that can be gradable and non-gradable
Some adjectives may have more than one meaning or sense. It's possible for the same adjective to be gradable with one sense and non-gradable with another sense. For example:
|He's got a very old car.
|I saw my old boyfriend yesterday.
|He has some dreadfully common habits.
|"The" is a very common word in English.
|The two countries' common border poses problems.
Adverbs used with gradable and non-gradable adjectives
The adverbs really (very much) and fairly and pretty (both meaning "to a significant degree, but less than very") can often be used with gradable and non-gradable adjectives:
|Please don't forget! It's really important.
||He was really terrified.
|He's a fairly rich man.
||It's a fairly impossible job.
|He's pretty tall.
||It's pretty ridiculous when you think about it.
"Quite" with gradable and non-gradable adjectives
The meaning of the adverb "quite" changes according to the type of adjective we use it with:
|It's quite warm today.
|Are you quite certain?
| Although we don't recommend that you learn lists of non-gradable adjectives, here are some for reference. You can decide for yourself whether they are extreme, absolute or classifying.
|alive, awful, black, boiling, certain, correct, dead, domestic, enormous, environmental, excellent, freezing, furious, gigantic, huge, immediately, impossible, miniscule, mortal, overjoyed, perfect, pregnant, principal, ridiculous, superb, terrible, terrified, unique, unknown, white, whole
|Again, no need to learn lists. Here are a few examples. There are many more. Remember that you cannot use all non-grading adverbs with all non-gradable adjectives. Some collocate (go together). Some don't.
| absolutely, almost, completely, entirely, exclusively, fully, largely, mainly, nearly, perfectly, practically, primarily, utterly, virtually
Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives Quiz >