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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

Hello, excuse me I have a lot of doubts about this topic, here is one of them:

- The adjectives: Freezing, devastated, starving are definitely non- gradable. But I'm not sure if they are absolute or extreme adjectives. Could you help with that issue, please?

Also, I would like to know if there is a way to identify when a non- gradable adjective is extreme and when it is absolute. If there is one method could you let me know please?

Thanks for this material :)

Hello again GiulianaAndy,

Freezing and starving are extreme adjectives. Devastated is similar to desctroyed and is an absolute adjective.

 

There's no way to know just from seeing it which category a given adjective belongs in. I suppose one guide is that extreme adjectives can be used comparatively in certain contexts, while absolute adjectives cannot be. For example, you can say this:

I'm absolutely freezing!

Don't complain. I'm even more freezing than you are. I haven't even got a hat!

However, you can't say 'more dead' or 'more perfect' other than in an ironic way.

 

The adverbs used with adjectives provide a clue, of course, but the rules for these are not entirely fixed.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, excuse me I have another question. This time is this: Is it exhausted an absolutely adjective or an extreme adjective?

Hello GiulianaAndy,

You can find 'exhausted' in one of the lists of examples.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, great lesson. However, I have a couple of questions:
1) Is "ridiculous" an extremely adjective?
2) What is the difference between "It's quite cold outside. In fact, it's nearly freezing" and "It's really cold outside. In fact it's nearly freezing"? And which one of those is more common to use in English?

Hello GiulianaAndy,

Yes, 'ridiculous' is an extreme adjective. It's modified by absolutely, completely, totally, utterly, thoroughly or really.

 

'Quite' is a stange adverb. It can be a mitigator, meaning it makes the adjective weaker:

It's quite cold but not very cold.

However, it can also be used to make an adjective stronger:

It's quite cold today so you'd better get your warmest coat.

The meaning is really dependent on the context and the way the spreaker expresses themself.

 

As to which of the two options is more common, I really can't say. Both sound perfectly fine to me. The context means there's no ambiguity in the use of 'quite', so I think you could use either form here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much

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.

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