Adjectives – gradable and non-gradable

Do you know how to use adjectives in phrases like a bit cold, really cold and absolutely freezing? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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

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Average: 3.3 (4 votes)

Submitted by CindyLoveEnglish on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 04:17

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Sorry, can I just add another adverb 'super' to my previous question:
Can we use 'super' to modify extreme adjectives?
Thank you.

Cindy

Submitted by CindyLoveEnglish on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 03:40

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Dear Sir or Madam,

Can you tell me if we can use 'so' to modify ungradable adjectives?
Also, are these adjectives 'pumped', 'stoked', 'excited' gradable?

Thank you.
Cindy

Hello Cindy,

We can use 'so' with many extreme non-gradable adjectives, especially those which express opinion and emotion:

I was so exhausted that I just fell asleep.

The story was so fascinating that everyone listened without a sound.

The dessert was so delicious that I couldn't stop!

 

It's less straightforward with 'super'. Here I think generally we don't use it with these adjectives, though some individuals use 'super' in place of 'really' when they want to emphasise emotion or physical states:

I was super exhausted.

However, these are really individual eccentricities rather than language rules.

 

We don't use 'so' or 'super' with absolute adjectives.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Peter,

Thank you so much for your prompt reply.

It seems you have missed out my other question :)
Could you tell me if these adjectives 'pumped', 'stoked', 'excited' are all gradable?

Thank you.
Cindy

Hello again Cindy,

Excited is certainly gradable.

Pumped and stoked I would say are not gradable, but these are very informal/slang expressions so the grammar around them may well not be particularly fixed. They're also American expressions which younger people use and I'm neither American nor particularly young!

If you're not sure about how to modify a particular adjective then the safest modifier is '(not) really' as it has the widest range of use and can come before extreme and gradable adjectives.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Navee on Sun, 20/03/2022 - 11:45

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Sir, I have some questions 1) could every extreme adjectives be modified by any adverb? 2) Some classifying adjectives are not modified by adverbs why?

Hello Navee,

1) In theory, any extreme adjective can be modified by an appropriate adverb. But in practice -- in other words, in the way the language is used -- there are probably some adjectives that aren't usually modified. 'really ancient', for example, sounds a bit odd to me. I'm afraid there are no easy rules that explain which ones can be modified, but in general you should be able to modify most of them in most cases.

2) Since classifying adjectives put people or object in categories -- in other words, they are part of the category or they aren't -- it seems strange to modify them. In this way, they are similar to absolute adjectives. My impression is that there is a bit of overlap between these two categories ('classifying adjectives' and 'absolute adjectives'). As far as I know they belong to two different systems for categorising adjectives and so they don't align perfectly. If there's a specific case of a classifying adjective that you'd like to ask about, please feel free to do so.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by GiulianaAndy on Sat, 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

Submitted by GiulianaAndy on Sat, 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?