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, extremely, 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
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.
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.
However, a non-gradable adjective can be used with "non-grading adverbs" (which usually just give the adjective extra impact), for example:
|non-grading adverbs||non-gradable adjectives|
Here are some example sentences containing non-grading adverbs 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.
Gradable / Non-gradable Adjectives
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.||gradable||not young|
|I saw my old boyfriend yesterday.||non-gradable||former, ex-|
|He has some dreadfully common habits.||gradable||vulgar|
|"The" is a very common word in English.||gradable||prevalent|
|The two countries' common border poses problems.||non-gradable||shared|
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 sense of the adverb "quite" changes according to the gradability of the adjective that we use it with:
|It's quite warm today.||gradable||fairly, rather|
|Are you quite certain?||non-gradable||completely, absolutely|
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, minuscule, 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