Adjective Gradability

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.

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives

Gradable Adjectives

A gradable adjective can be used with "grading adverbs" that vary the adjective's grade or intensity. Look at these examples:

grading adverbs
a little, dreadfully, extremely, fairly, hugely, immensely, intensely, rather, reasonably, slightly, unusually, very
+ gradable adjectives
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.

Non-gradable Adjectives

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:

  • freezing, more freezing, the most freezing
  • dead, deader, the deadest
  • nuclear, more nuclear, the most nuclear
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.

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  
absolutely awful extreme
utterly excellent
completely terrified
totally dead absolute
nearly impossible
virtually unique
essentially chemical classifying
mainly digital
almost domestic

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:

example sentence adjective sense
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:

gradable non-gradable
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:

  adjective sense
It's quite warm today. gradable fairly, rather
Are you quite certain? non-gradable completely, absolutely


Non-gradable adjectives

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

Non-grading adverbs

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