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Adjectives – gradable and non-gradable

Do you know how to use adjectives in phrases like a bit cold, really cold and absolutely freezing?

Look at these examples to see how gradable and non-gradable adjectives are used.

It's really cold.
It's absolutely freezing.
This exercise is really difficult.
This exercise is completely impossible.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Adjectives: gradable and non-gradable: Grammar test 1

Grammar explanation

Gradable adjectives

Most adjectives are gradable. This means we can have different levels of that quality. For example, you can be a bit cold, very cold or extremely cold. We can make them weaker or stronger with modifiers:

She was quite angry when she found out.
The film we saw last night was really funny!
It can be extremely cold in Russia in the winter.

Here is a list of some common gradable adjectives and some modifiers that we can use with them.

Modifiers a little/a bit pretty/quite really/very extremely
Adjectives angry, big, boring, cheap, cold, expensivefrightening, funny, hot, interestingold, prettysmall, tasty, tired, etc.

Non-gradable: absolute adjectives

Some adjectives are non-gradable. For example, something can't be a bit finished or very finished. You can't be a bit dead or very dead. These adjectives describe absolute qualities. To make them stronger we have to use modifiers like absolutely, totally or completely:

Thank you, I love it! It's absolutely perfect!
Their farm was totally destroyed by a tornado.
My work is completely finished. Now I can relax.

Here is a list of some common absolute adjectives and some modifiers that we can use with them.

Modifiers absolutely/totally/completely
Adjectives acceptable, dead, destroyed, finished, free, impossible, necessary, perfect, ruined, unacceptable, etc.

Non-gradable: extreme adjectives

Adjectives like amazing, awful and boiling are also non-gradable. They already contain the idea of 'very' in their definitions. If we want to make extreme adjectives stronger, we have to use absolutely or really:

Did you see the final match? It was absolutely amazing!
After 32 hours of travelling, they were absolutely exhausted.
My trip home was really awful. First, traffic was really bad, then the car broke down and we had to walk home in the rain.

Here is a list of some common extreme adjectives and some modifiers that we can use with them.

Modifiers absolutely/really
Adjectives amazing, ancient, awful, boiling, delicious, enormous, excellent, exhausted, fascinating, freezing, gorgeous, terrible, terrifying, tiny, etc.

 

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Adjectives: gradable and non-gradable: Grammar test 2

Language level

Intermediate: B1

Comments

Hi, I have a question regarding the non-gradable adjectives.
I understand you cannot used the modifier "bit" when using the adjective finished, but what about the adverb "almost", which I think can be used with some of the non-gradable adjective above. Is there any difference between a adverb and a modifier? is it wrong then when people say "i'm almost finished" or "my work is almost finished" or "Their farm was almost totally destroyed by a tornado"?

Hi Oona,

It's perfectly fine to use almost with non-gradeable adjectives:

I've almost finished.

That meal was almost perfect. But where was the dessert?

You can also say almost totally (or almost completely) as in your example.

 

A modifier is any word which changes the meaning of another verb by restricting or adding to it. Adverbs can be modifiers but so can adjectives, for example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi.

What could be some non-gradable options for boring and nice?

Thanks in advance.

Hi Fredy,

For boring you could use stultifying or mind-numbing, for example.

For nice, there are many possibilities depending on the context. Nice has a very wide range of uses, so we'd need to know the context before making a suggestion.

You can find alternatives like this with any good thesaurus.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Great.

Thank you so much

I have learned about gradable and non-gradable adjective completely. I didn't know quiet well.

Really Liked It :)

Is there by any chance I could use non-gradable modifiers for gradable adjectives. For example "I am totally angry"?

Hello rachel s,

Certain adjectives can function as both gradable and limit adjectives and can be modified by either type of adverb. For example, we can say:

I'm very satisfied.

I'm totally satisfied.

Other adjectives like this are full, empty, beautiful, black, delicious, new and possible.

Angry is not one of these, however. You need to use an adverb for gradable adjectives with this word.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Why couldn't we use the other modifiers with the extreme adjectives like (totally/completely)? Why it should be only (really or absolutely)?

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