Gradable and Ungradable Adjectives

'Gradable' means being able to put something into different grades. So, What are the differences between gradable and ungradable adjectives?

Intermediate
"Gradable and Ungradable Adjectives" in the English Grammar

Adjectives are words that describe other words. We can categorize adjectives into two groups:

  1. gradable adjectives
  2. ungradable (also called non-gradable) adjectives

Take a look at some examples of gradable and non-gradable adjectives:

ungradable adjective boiling huge/enormous priceless
extremely hot extremely big extremely expensive
very hot very big very expensive
gradable adjective hot big expensive
rather hot rather big rather expensive
fairly hot fairly big fairly expensive
fairly cold fairly small fairly cheap
rather cold rather small rather cheap
gradable adjective cold small cheap
very cold very small very cheap
extremely cold extremely small extremely cheap
ungradable Adjective freezing tiny/minute free

Gradable Adjectives

Most adjectives have a meaning which can be made stronger or weaker; these are called 'gradable adjectives.'

Gradable adjectives represent a point on a scale. For example, cheap and expensive are
adjectives on the scale of 'how much something costs'.

  • fast
  • rich
  • important
  • cold
  • busy
  • good
  • strong
  • tall
  • happy
  • funny

We can make comparative and superlative forms from all gradable adjectives:

Ungradable Adjectives

Other adjectives have a meaning which is extreme or absolute and cannot easily be made stronger or weaker. These are called 'ungradable adjectives.' Ungradable adjectives represent the limits of a scale.

Modifying Gradable Adjectives

Gradable adjectives can be made stronger with the adverb 'very,' but not with the adverb 'absolutely':

Your antique rosewood desk looks absolutely expensive.

Your antique rosewood desk looks very expensive.

Other modifiers that we can use to strengthen the meaning of these adjectives are:

  • really
  • so
  • rather
  • extremely
  • terribly
  • most (formal)
  • pretty (informal)

I'm terribly sorry to have offended you.

You still look pretty young.

I was most surprised to hear of your engagement.

There are many adverbs that we can use to modify gradable adjectives. The most common one of them is 'very.' But keep in mind that in order to sound fluent you can use other combinations of adverbs and adjectives. Take a look at these examples:

I was bitterly disappointed.

As a teenager, Brandon was painfully shy.

He is a highly successful businessman.

using an adverb to describe an adjective

Tip!

Note that not all adverbs can go with all adjectives. There is a concept called collocation in the English language nad you should pay attention to that. We can often only use certain adverbs with certain adjectives.

Gradable adjectives can usually be made weaker by adverbs such as:

  1. a (little) bit
  2. fairly
  3. somewhat
  4. slightly

It's a slightly different color than I expected.

Weren't you being a little bit unfair?

The price is somewhat higher than I expected.

We can use the structure "be + not + very/at all + adj" to weaken gradable adjectives. Note that this structure is informal and you should not use it in a formal context.

His latest book wasn't very long and it wasn't at all exciting.

Modifying Ungradable Adjectives

The meaning of ungradable adjectives indicates the limit of a scale; therefore, they are not usually used in comparatives and superlatives. We also cannot use the adverb 'very' to modify them. Take a look at these examples:

His antique coin was more priceless than theirs. → His antique coin was more valuable than theirs.

Their garden is very enormous. → Their garden is absolutely enormous.

The adverb 'absolutely' is the most common modifying adverb for ungradable adjectives in spoken and informal English:

Their wedding cake was absolutely delicious.

Are you absolutely sure?

The adverb 'quite' can also be used for modifying ungradable adjectives:

The show was quite amazing.

He is quite correct.

Usually, ungradable adjectives cannot be made weaker:

My most valuable possession is a slightly priceless antique car.

I wouldn't recommend the restaurant; it's not very fabulous.

Ungradable adjectives are not usually used in comparatives and superlatives. However, in informal English, we can use them in that way when we are comparing similar things at one end of a scale:

I was more exhausted by the journey than I was after the climb.

Their garden is even more enormous than ours!

Modifying Adjectives In Informal English

The most common modifier that we can use with both gradable and ungradable adjectives is 'really.'

This book was really exciting.

It's really hot in here.

ln informal American English, instead of 'really,' we can use 'real':

That horse runs real slow.

If we want to talk in a very informal and friendly situation, we can use 'dead' and a number of slang words as intensifiers.

That movie was dead scary!

Review

Adjectives can be either gradable or ungradable. check out the definition on the list:

  • gradable adjectives: can get stronger or weaker
  • ungradable adjectives: cannot get stronger or weaker and they have an absolute meaning

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