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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

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)?

Hello khalid Ibrahim

The real answer is that this is just the way that people have come to speak English over many years. It might also help to think that 'completely' and 'totally' already express the idea of 'extreme'. 'absolutely' also expresses this idea, but we do indeed use it with extreme adjectives. 'really' expresses the idea of 'very', so it makes more sense that it can be used with extreme adjectives.

But as I said at the beginning, the real reason is that this is how native speakers use English. Sorry to not have a more easily-understood answer for you!

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

It's really helpful.

I'd like to know:
1) if the adjectives 'frightened, satisfied and thrilled' are gradable or non-gradable.
2) in what sort of the three adjectives previously studied, we can use the adverbs 'fairly' and 'rather'.

Hello César Árraga,

Frightened and satisfied are gradeable adjectives. Thrilled is a limit adjective.

In modern English, fairly and rather are used with gradeable adjectives. They weaken the meaning of the adjective and have a similar meaning to quite.

 

These adverbs could also be used as modifiers for limit adjectives, adding emphasis, but this is extremely rare in modern English:

I was quite delighted. [completely delighted]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I understood almost everything, however, I'm a bit confused about 'satisfied' due to I read two sentences in Internet which said "very satisfied" and "If you're not completely satisfied, you can get your money back." We can look at there, the two sort of modifiers (very and completely) are using the same adjective (satisfied), but these modifiers are used usually with gradable and absolute adjectives respectively. I'm a little puzzled. Please, help me with it! Thanks.

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