Gradable & Ungradable Adjectives

“The older I get, the more I feel almost beautiful.”

Sharon Olds, an American poet

Gradable adjectives (GAs) represent a point on a scale:

Cheap, expensive (adjectives on the price scale)

Cold, cool, hot (adjectives on the temperature scale)

Large, small (adjectives on the size scale)

Ungradable adjectives (UAs) represent the limits of a scale:

Free and priceless (the limits on the price scale)

Freezing and boiling (the limits on the temperature scale)

Enormous and tiny (the limits on the size scale)

Most English adjectives are gradable. We can make comparative and superlative forms from all GAs. We don’t usually make comparisons with UAs, although there are some patterns we use in spoken English:

That was the most delicious meal!

Her house is even more enormous than his!

I am more dead than alive. (“more dead than alive” is an idiom meaning “exhausted”)

Some adjectives can have both gradable and ungradable meanings:

The hotel is full. There is no vacancy. (ungradable – completely full)

The hotel’s very full but I think I can get you a single room for tonight. (gradable – there are many guests but we still have some rooms available)

Other adjectives like this are: empty, black (an other colors), delicious, new, possible, correct.

INTENSIFYING GRADABLE ADJECTIVES

We can make GAs stronger with very, but not with absolutely:

The dress looks very expensive.

It’s very chilly.

He is a very shy boy.

There are other words we can use to strengthen the meaning of these adjectives:

  • extremely: There remarks are extremely offensive.
  • most (formal): The chapter was most instructive (don’t use “the” before “most”)
  • pretty (informal): I was pretty upset.
  • rather (usually used with negative adjectives or when describing something unexpected): The smell is rather unpleasant (it’s a bad thing). Surprisingly, the album was rather good (it’s a surprise).
  • really (you can use “really” with both GAs and UAs): It was really nice.
  • so: He is so friendly.
  • terribly: The match was terribly exciting.

We often use less common adverbs to intensify certain GAs:

I was bitterly disappointed. My brother is painfully shy. These students are highly intelligent. I am deeply ashamed. It’s entirely obvious. The soldiers are heavily armed. She is hideously injured. It’s perfectly reasonable. He is totally incompetent. It’s utterly tragic.

Not sure which adverbs to use with certain adjectives? This website will be a great help.

WEAKENING GRADABLE ADJECTIVES

GAs can usually be made weaker by the words:

  • fairly: It’s fairly uncommon.
  • slightly: I’m slightly dizzy.
  • a (little) bit (informal): I’m a bit upset.
  • somewhat (formal): According to the report, the detainee is somewhat aggressive.

We can use not very and not at all to weaken GAs after the verb to be:

The test wasn’t at all difficult.

The weather was not very bad.

With GAs quite usually means fairy but can have other meanings, depending on stress and intonation:

The film was quite interesting. (= fairly interesting)

The film was quite interesting. (stressed adjective: more interesting than the speaker expected)

The film was quite interesting. (stressed adverb: less interesting than the speaker expected)

INTENSIFYING UNGRADABLE ADJECTIVES

A common way to intensify the meaning of UAs is with the adverb absolutely:

The water is absolutely freezing!

She was absolutely gorgeous!

We don’t usually use very with UAs:

Entrance to the museum is very free. Entrance to the museum is absolutely free.

When we use quite with UAs, it has a similar meaning to completely or absolutely:

You are quite right. (= absolutely right)

It’s quite wrong to do it like this. (= absolutely wrong)

We can also use a most before an UA + noun:

She has a most amazing style! (= her style is absolutely amazing)

Although we use absolutely with many UAs, there’re some adjectives where we prefer to use other intensifying adverbs. There are no grammar rules which explain these combinations, so it is better to learn them as vocabulary items:

She is totally deaf in one ear.

He is totally blind.

I was utterly appalled by his dishonesty.

WEAKENING UNGRADABLE ADJECTIVES

We use the following adverbs to indicate a point close to the absolute meaning of UAs:

  • almost: The battery in my smartphone is almost dead.
  • nearly: He’s nearly deaf.
  • practically: It’s practically freezing in this room!
  • virtually: It’s virtually impossible.

We don’t usually use the modifiers fairly, slightly, a (little) bit, somewhat or not very with UAs.