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

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Soumis par GiulianaAndy le sam 24/07/2021 - 19:31

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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

Soumis par GiulianaAndy le sam 24/07/2021 - 18:16

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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

Soumis par GiulianaAndy le jeu 01/07/2021 - 23:54

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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

Soumis par mohamad90 le mer 10/03/2021 - 16:12

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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

Soumis par ddddd le sam 27/02/2021 - 16:49

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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

Soumis par Nirabag2 le mar 16/02/2021 - 10:20

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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!

Soumis par Jeffery le sam 30/01/2021 - 17:07

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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

Soumis par Oona le mar 08/09/2020 - 01:55

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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

Soumis par Fredy le jeu 06/08/2020 - 14:22

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Hi. What could be some non-gradable options for boring and nice? Thanks in advance.

Soumis par Peter M. le ven 07/08/2020 - 08:46

En réponse à par Fredy

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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

Soumis par Dastenova Firuza le dim 12/07/2020 - 15:57

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

Soumis par rachel s le ven 15/05/2020 - 05:53

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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

Hello Peter, Could you please explain what limit adjectives are? I understood from this article that there were gradable adjectives and non-gradable (absolute and extreme). Are limit adjectives the third type of adjectives (apart from gradable and non-gradable)? Which modifiers should I use with limit adjectives?

Hello tmaryna,

Limit adjectives is just another term for non-gradable.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Soumis par César Árraga le mar 07/04/2020 - 23:09

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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.

Hello César Árraga,

The adverbs conpletely and totally are sometimes used with gradeable adjectives. Thus, it's not uncommon to say you are completely happy with something or totally satisfied.

The adverbs utterly and absolutely are less commonly used in this way, and tend to be reserved for limit adjectives.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Umoh Margaret le lun 24/02/2020 - 15:15

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Please, Sir, what type of adverb are increasingly, highly, remarkably, and interestingly. Are these adverbs intensifier or mitigators?

Hello Umoh Margaret,

All of those words make adjectives stronger, so they are intensifiers.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team