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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, 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.

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!

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