Gradable and non-gradable adjectives

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Gradable and non-gradable adjectives are two important categories in the English language that play a pivotal role in expressing the intensity or degree of quality. Understanding the difference between these two types of adjectives is crucial for effective communication, whether in writing or speaking.

Gradable Adjectives

Gradable adjectives are those that describe qualities that can vary in intensity or degree. They answer the question of "how much?" or "to what extent?" They are flexible, allowing for a range of quantification. This means that these adjectives can be modified by adverbs to indicate different levels of the quality they describe. Here are some examples:

  • "Cold" is a gradable adjective. You can have varying degrees of coldness - 'very cold,' 'quite cold,' 'extremely cold.' For example, “The weather today is very cold.”
  • "Happy" is another gradable adjective. A person can be 'a little happy,' 'quite happy,' or 'very happy.' For example, “She was quite happy with the results.”

The key characteristics of gradable adjectives are:

  • Varying Intensity. Gradable adjectives describe qualities that can exist in different amounts or degrees. For instance, the adjective "cold" can range from slightly cold to extremely cold.
  • Modifiability. They can be modified by adverbs like "very," "quite," "extremely," and "somewhat." For example, "happy" can become "very happy" or "somewhat happy."
  • Comparative and superlative forms. Gradable adjectives can be used in comparative and superlative forms. "Tall," for example, can become "taller" (comparative) or "tallest" (superlative).
  • Subjectivity in interpretation. The degree of a gradable adjective is often subjective. What is "warm" to one person might be "hot" to another.

Gradable adjectives are crucial in everyday communication because they allow for nuance and specificity. By indicating the degree of quality, they help convey more precise information and express varying intensity levels, which is essential for clear and effective communication.


Non-Gradable Adjectives

Non-gradable adjectives describe qualities that are absolute and cannot vary in intensity or degree. These adjectives indicate qualities that are either present or absent, with no middle ground or scale of gradation. These adjectives do not pair well with adverbs like 'very' or 'extremely.' Here are some examples:

  • "Married" is an example of an absolute adjective. One cannot be 'very married' or 'somewhat married.'
  • "Dead" is another non-gradable adjective. Something is either 'dead' or it isn't; there are no degrees of being dead.

The key characteristics of non-gradable adjectives are:

  • Absoluteness. Non-gradable adjectives represent an extreme or absolute state. For example, "dead" means not alive, without any degree.
  • No modifiability by standard adverbs. They do not typically work with adverbs like "very," "quite," or "extremely." Saying "very dead" is illogical because "dead" is an absolute state.
  • Lack of comparative and superlative forms. These adjectives generally do not have comparative or superlative forms. For instance, "perfect" does not have a comparative form like "more perfect" or a superlative form like "most perfect."
  • Binary states. Non-gradable adjectives often indicate a binary state – something either is or is not the quality in question. A substance is either "toxic" or it isn't; there are no degrees to it.

Non-gradable adjectives play a critical role in communication by providing clarity and definiteness. They are used when no degree or comparison is needed or possible. By their nature, these adjectives often convey a strong level of emphasis or certainty. They are particularly useful when a clear, unequivocal statement is required.

List of gradable and non-gradable adjectives

Here is a small list of gradable and absolute adjectives. Keep in mind that this list is non-exhaustive, and its main purpose is to provide a deep understanding of the meaning of gradable and extreme adjectives.

Gradable AdjectivesExample Sentences for Gradable AdjectivesNon-Gradable AdjectivesExample Sentences for Non-Gradable Adjectives
ColdThe weather was slightly cold in the morning.MarriedShe is married to her high school sweetheart.
HappyShe felt quite happy after receiving the good news.DeadHe was declared dead at the scene.
ExpensiveThis watch is somewhat expensive for my taste.PerfectThis solution is perfect for our problem.
LoudThe music at the concert was deafeningly loud.UniqueEach snowflake is unique in its design.
BrightThe room was blindingly bright with the new lights.AbsoluteTheir commitment was absolute.
HeavyThe package was extremely heavy to lift.CompleteThe job is complete with the last shipment.
OldThat antique vase looks quite old.EmptyThe room was completely empty.
TallShe is the tallest person in her family.ImpossibleClimbing that mountain is impossible in this weather.
SmallThis apartment is the smallest I've seen.InfiniteThe universe is thought to be infinite.
SoftThe pillow was the softest I've ever felt.UnanimousThe jury reached a unanimous decision.

This table illustrates how gradable adjectives can be modified to express varying degrees of quality, as shown in the example sentences. In contrast, non-gradable adjectives describe absolute states and are not subject to degrees of intensity or comparison, as evidenced by their corresponding example sentences.

Explore Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives


Understanding the difference between gradable and non-gradable adjectives enhances our ability to describe things accurately and express ourselves clearly. It is a fundamental aspect of mastering English, useful in both everyday conversation and professional communication. By recognizing whether an adjective is gradable or non-gradable, we can choose the most appropriate modifiers and structures to convey our thoughts precisely and effectively.

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