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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 didn't understand the difference between absolute adjectives and extreme one. Would you please help me?

Hello mohamad90,

Absolute adjectives are like switches: they are either on or off; there is no middle ground or degree. For example, something is either ideal or it is not ideal; it cannot be slightly ideal or very ideal. When we modify these adjectives we are really not making them stronger, but rather adding rhetorical emphasis.

 

Extreme adjectives are adjectives which are already very strong, but are not binary (on/off). For example, amazing is already strong, but tt's possible to imagine things which are amazing to a greater degree than other things.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

In the sentence "In real life, it was ___ tiny", answer is "really". Why don't use "very"? what's different between "really" and "tiny"? Thank you.

Hello ddddd,

This is explained above. 'tiny' is an extreme adjective and we don't generally use 'very' with extreme adjectives, though we do sometimes use 'really' or 'absolutely' to modify them.

It's true that 'very' and 'really' effectively have the same meaning, and so I can appreciate that this is a little confusing. It may help to think that we don't generally use 'really' or 'absolutely' with extreme adjectives; normally, they stand alone, but it is possible to use 'really' or 'absolutely' when you want to emphasise them even more.

In the end, this is just the way native speakers have come to speak over time.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

It is often said that non-gradable adjectives don't take on a comparative form. How about the sentence "This was the most amazing trip ever!". Would this then not work?

Hello Nirabag2,

That's a superlative form and not a comparative form.

You can use superlative forms with limit adjectives, though it is a self-consciously exaggerated way of expressing yourself:

It was the most perfect day I could imagine!

That was the most awful meeting I've ever experienced.

The meal was the most disgusting I've ever ate.

 

Some of these words can be used with comparative forms, but it is unusual to do so. We would not say *more perfect, but more clearly opinion-expressing adjectives such as amazing, disgusting and so on could be used in this way:

You know, I think that meal was even more disgusting than the one we had yesterday.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Yes, sorry, comparative or superlative form. I didn't fully finish my sentence. Thanks for the answer Peter!

Dear sir or madam, with all respect, I want to ask you a question.

I came across with the sentences: I have always hated the idea of wrestling. All that violence , all that male ego, the silly , tiny costumes.

Here in the sentences above, why does the writer use "comma" in between "silly and tiny", instead of having no comma.

Hi Jeffery,

Different writers and publishers have different ideas about how to use commas -- in general, we call these kinds of choices 'style'. Questions of style are not ones we really address, but here it could be that the writer preferred the comma because the idea that the costumes are tiny is separate from the idea that they are silly.

In other words, they aren't silly because they are tiny -- they are just silly even if they're not tiny. Please know, however, that I might be wrong about that.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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"?

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