Friday, February 10, 2012

Gradable and ungradable adjectives

Why should we be interested in whether adjectives are gradable or not?

There are two main reasons why knowing a bit about the gradabilty of adjectives is useful to students.
  • 1. - it largely decides what intensifiers, adverbs like quite, very and absolutely, we can use before them.
  • 2. - learning some strong versions of gradable adjectives will increase your vocabulary, and make your English more varied and interesting.
For this reason, I will only be looking here at those adjectives that we often use intensifiers with. There are a lot of ungradable adjectives like metal, married or pregnant, where we don't normally use intensifiers. I won't be discussing these here.
As usual in my lessons, I won't be telling you much, you will need to work it out for yourselves through the exercises. If you simply want an explanation, there are some links below.

Looking for a list of gradable and ungradable adjectives?

If you've landed here because you're trying to find out whether a particular adjective is gradable or not, you might not find the answer here, but you could try my newer post where I list a lot adjectives as being gradable, extreme or absolute. You can find it here.

Click and Drop where you see this symbol ? mouse over it for instructions

The basics

There are three main types of adjective we use intensifiers with: gradable, strong (also known as extreme) and absolute.

Exercise 1 - Gradable and non-gradable ?

Complete the descriptions of different types of adjective with examples from the box.
exhausted   ·   unique   ·   tired
  • Gradable- can be graded or given different degrees on a sliding scale.
    For example:
  • Non-gradable - can be divided into two types:
    • Strong or Extreme adjectives - stronger equivalents of gradable adjectives.
      For example:
    • Absolute adjectives- they are either true or not true, there is no middle ground.
      For example:

The most common intensifiers

Exercise 2 - Basic intensifiers (one or two perhaps not quite so basic) ?

quite   ·   very   ·   totally   ·   really   ·   extremely   ·   pretty   ·   absolutely
Which of these words can be used with the following. Enter the pairs in the same order as they are in the box:
1.gradable only
2.non-gradable only
3.gradable and non-gradable with the same meaning
4.gradable and non-gradable with a different meaning
These are the most commonly used intensifiers. We shall be looking at a few more a little later.


The word really is a very useful word in informal English for two reasons:
  1. As you can use it with both gradable and non-gradable adjectives, you don't have to worry about the grammar side of things.
  2. It has more emotional content than very. Look at these sentences:
    • Thanks for the party, I had a very good time.
    • Thanks for the party, I had a really good time.
    The first is polite enough, but the second sounds as though you really mean it. As if it came from the heart.
In formal writing, however, it is best to try and find more specific intensifiers.

How can we tell if an adjective is gradable or not?

There is no hard and fast way that we can tell whether an adjective is gradable just by looking at it, but there are a couple of tests we can do.

1. Can we make comparative and superlative versions of the adjective?

  • It's hotter today than it was yesterday. (gradable)
  • It's more boiling today than it was yesterday. (strong)
  • This house is more unique than that one. (absolute)
Usually we only make comparisons with gradable adjectives. So try using a comparative and if it sounds OK, then the adjective is probably gradable. But notice that:
Some adjectives normally considered strong or extreme, for example, tiny, do in fact have comparative and superlative versions, although they aren't used very often. - Smallest Frogs Found—Each Tinier Than an M&M (National Geographic)
We sometimes use a comparative after even with strong adjectives, especially when we are not directly comparing something with something else, but in a more abstract way. - The view from here is even more amazing than I remember it.

2. Can we use the determiner very before the adjective?

  • I'm very tired. (gradable)
  • She's very exhausted. (strong)
  • It's very unique. (absolute)
If so, it's probably gradable.

Exercise 3 - Gradable, strong or absolute?

Decide which category these adjectives fit into, using the selectors. Try using them with very and absolutely and see which sounds best.
1. surprised
2. furious
3. true
4. astonished
5. friendly
6. impossible
7. perfect
8. ridiculous
9. important
10. awful
11. popular
12. overjoyed

Why do we use intensifiers with non-gradable adjectives?

Grading adverbs such as quite, very and extremely are used to put an adjective somewhere on a scale.
  • quite tired
  • very popular
  • extremely cold
But absolute and strong adjectives cannot be given a degree like this. When we use intensifiers like absolutely, completely and totally, we are using them for emphasis rather then degree.
  • completely exhausted
  • absolutely right
  • totally unique

Gradable and strong - descriptive adjectives

Exercise 4 - Match the gradable adjectives on the left with their strong equivalents on the right.

1. badadelicious
2. beautifulbtiny
3. bigcspotless
4. cleandfilthy
5. cleverehuge
6. coldfexcellent
7. dirtygterrible
8. funnyhessential
9. goodihideous
10. hotjdestitute
11. importantksoaking
12. lovablelboiling
13. oldmcertain
14. poornridiculous
15. sillyohilarious
16. smallpancient
17. sureqadorable
18. tastyrfreezing
19. uglysbrilliant
20. wettgorgeous

Gradable and strong - Adjectives describing feelings etc

Exercise 5 - Match the gradable adjectives on the left with their strong equivalents on the right.

1. angryaecstatic
2. embarrassedbstarving
3. excitedcastonished
4. frighteneddexhausted
5. happyethrilled
6. hungryfmortified
7. interestedgdelighted
8. pleasedhfascinated
9. shockedidevastated
10. surprisedjfurious
11. tiredkhorrified
12. upsetlterrified

Exercise 6 - Cross out the wrong option. Click on an option to cross it out it. If you change your mind, click on one of the other options

1. It's a(n) absolutely / really / very nice day, isn't it?
2. I thought the film was absolutely / quite / extremely amazing.
3. It's absolutely / very / really marvellous news.
4. The forecast is looking pretty / quite / totally promising.
5. We were really / totally / very unlucky at the races.
6. I'm getting absolutely / quite / really bored with this book.
7. She was extremely / pretty / totally amazed to see him there.
8. We got really / totally / very soaked in the rain.
9. He's absolutely / extremely / pretty clever for his age.
10. Her first day at work was extremely / pretty / quite disastrous.
11. We had a really / totally / very pleasant day by the seaside.
12. They were really / totally / very astonished at the news.

More than one strong equivalent

Many gradable adjectives have more than one strong equivalent. Learning some alternatives will increase your vocabulary.

Exercise 7 - Divide these adjectives into six groups of four, according to meaning. You can copy and paste them into the six boxes.


-ing and -ed adjectives

In that last exercise you will have noticed we had the adjectives amazing and amazed and that their meanings were different. Although -ing and -ed adjectives usually have a similar meaning, eg: surprising / surprised, interesting / interested, some pairs can have different meanings:
  • amazing - really good
  • amazed - really surprised
  • stunning - really beautiful (also really surprising)
  • stunned - really shocked (also really surprised)
  • thrilling - really exciting
  • thrilled - really pleased, happy (also really excited)

Not all gradable adjectives have strong equivalents

Many gradable adjectives don't really have strong equivalents. These include:
  • describing people - busy, friendly, popular, rich
  • intermediates - warm, cool
  • attributes - fast, slow, strong, weak, young
  • dimensions - deep, shallow, high, low, long, short, tall, wide, narrow

Can we use both grading and absolute intensifiers with some adjectives?

The adjective certain is sometimes seen as a stronger version of sure. But I started thinking that we could use both very and absolutely with both these adjectives. And this turns out to be the case. It looks from this graph of use in books of fiction as though both words are in the process of changing from being gradable adjectives (the blue and green lines) to ungradable (red and yellow). So, for the moment at least, we can use both gradable and emphasising intensifiers with these words.
We'll look at a few others a bit later on.

Surprised? She was absolutely flabbergasted!

Exercise 8 - Fill the gaps with strong versions of the adjectives in the sentences.

exasperating   · exorbitant   · terrific   · scorching   · absurd   · awful   · ravenous   · knackered   · immense   · stunning   · meticulous   · vital  
1. Her work is always very thorough. - Thorough? It's !
2. Her house is quite big. - Big? It's absolutely !
3. You look a bit tired. - Tired? I'm totally (UK slang).
4. That film was rather bad. - Bad? It was !
5. It's so hot. - Hot? It's absolutely !
6. Its important to do this properly. - Important? It's absolutely !
7. What he said was a bit silly. Silly? - It was totally !
8. Isn't it good news? - Good? It's absolutely news!
9. It's very annoying when he does that. - Annoying? It's !
10. Isn't she beautiful? - Beautiful? She's absolutely !
11. Was it very expensive? - Expensive? It was !
12. Are you hungry? - Hungry? I'm absolutely !

Some more intensifiers

Exercise 9 - Decide whether these intensifiers go with gradable or ungradable adjectives. Try saying them with tired, exhausted and unique, and see which you think sounds better.

1.a bit, a little

Bringing it all together

Exercise 10 - Underline the best option. Click on an option to underline it. If you change your mind, click on one of the other options

1. I'm fantastically bad / terrible at maths.
2. It is hugely important / essential that this should be done well.
3. It's unusually boiling / hot for this time of year.
4. The hotel is fairly immense / large .
5. It was a very accomplished / marvellous performance.
6. Her sense of humour is utterly unusual / unique .
7. I'm incredibly delighted / pleased at the news.
8. She was completely puzzled / stupefied by his suggestion.
9. She was totally surprised / euphoric when she won the award.
10. He's immensely excited / thrilled about his trip.
11. She is virtually penniless / poor .
12. My phone is completely broken / useless .
13. This vase is perfectly hideous / ugly .
14. She's almost old / ancient .
15. He was rather furious / annoyed when he found out the truth.
16. I'm a bit exhausted / tired .
17. We're reasonably pleased / delighted with the results.
18. These cakes are exceedingly delicious / good .
19. He has a fairly colossal / inflated sense of his own importance.
20. We were entirely satisfied / overjoyed with the arrangements.
21. This chocolate is simply sublime / tasty .
22. Their prices are rather exorbitant / high .
23. They charge an absolutely trifling / small amount for the service.
24. I'm slightly astounded / surprised at his behaviour.
25. She's a dreadfully brilliant / talented dancer.

Afterthoughts and some Ngram links.

The more I do these exercises, the more I become convinced that it's not quite as black and white as some of the books make out. Earlier on we looked at sure and certain. Here are a few more examples, with links to Ngram graphs showing their use over the years in a selection of books:
  • Although I would say totally exhausted rather than very exhausted, I think I can also imagine myself saying rather exhausted, even though rather is normally used with gradable adjectives. Ngram
  • Satisfied seems to collocate equally well with very and completely Ngram
  • New - Although we can certainly use fairly, rather and very with new, totally and completely seem to be more popular. Ngram
  • Thrilled - Like sure and certain, thrilled also seems to be making the journey from gradable to strong. Ngram
  • Puzzled is another interesting case. More gradable than not, but emphasisers also possible.Ngram
  • And exceedingly appears to collocate with delicious (ungradable) almost as well as with tasty (gradable), even though exceedingly normally goes with gradable adjectives: exceedingly pretty, exceedingly fast, exceedingly thirsty etc. Ngram
Here are a couple more Ngram graphs from questions in the previous exercise:
This doesn't mean of course that the basic principle we have been looking at is wrong. After all, it only affects three questions out of the 25 in that last exercise, but it does suggest that there are a few grey areas where certain adjectives can be used with some grading adverbs and also with some emphasising adverbs.
But remember, when in doubt, really is usually safe enough. And as well as checking in a dictionary, you can always check possibilities out on Ngram. It's fun and very easy to use.
Here's how to do it. Enter two or more expressions, separated by commas (but no space). Try pasting this example into the box, then click on 'Go to Ngram':
made it very clear,made it absolutely clear


This little word raises passions like few others. Unique is relatively new to the English language (it was considered a foreign word until the middle of the 19th century). It's original meaning was being 'the only one of its kind', and therefore impossible to grade or compare, and so absolute.
  • Stonehenge is (absolutely) unique.
  • We sell totally unique jewellery. Nobody else makes anything like it.
  • This painting is unique in the history of British art.
In this use, I think emphasisers like absolutely and totally etc are OK.
Most people would also allow almost, nearly and practically with this meaning.
  • This diamond is almost unique. There are only two others like it in the world.
  • The influence of the private education system in Britain is practically unique.
  • A nearly unique experience.
But there are some purists who believe that unique should remain totally unadorned - 'It is either unique or it isn't'!
From this came a secondary absolute with to, meaning - 'belonging only to somebody, something or somewhere'
  • The Mudéjar style of architecture is unique to Spain.
  • This type of cooking is unique to one part of India.
  • Having stamps without the name of the country is unique to Britain.
In this use, I think any intensifiers, even absolutely or totally, would sound a bit strange, and so are best avoided.
Very soon, however, it started to be used with the sense of 'very special or unusual', and so to a certain degree, at least, gradable.
  • He has a rather unique sense of humour.
  • Chicago is no less unique an American city than New York or San Francisco
  • This trip offers a really unique opportunity to explore the Borneo rainforest.
The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary allows the use of the words like more and very in this meaning, and Merriam-Webster says that 'In modern use both comparison and modification are widespread and standard'.
But I'd be careful. Not everybody accepts this third usage, and consider the use of expressions like very unique and more unique to be incorrect. I wouldn't go that far, but I have to admit they sound strange, and I wouldn't use them myself. But I'd happily use absolutely, totally and possibly really.

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  1. I'm going to teach gradable and ungradable adjectives this week and I've found your explanations and exercises extremely thorough and helpful. Thank you so much!

  2. Excellent job!
    complete and very useful..

  3. Fantastic job; has really helped me before my lesson.

    Was left speechless when asked for the strong equivalent of 'boring' - and I guess it must be one of these adjectives that don't have a strong equivalent.

  4. @ishool/trinity - How about 'mind-numbing'? It's defined in Oxford Advanced as 'very boring'. I'll have to add it to my list

  5. Fantastic work. This puts my blog to shame.

  6. Thanks for that. Care to link to your blog?

  7. I was shocked on exercise three that I posted gradable for all of them. Do you know why this is happening?

  8. Hi. I suspect this is a joke, so do I know why you posted gradable for all of them? No, not really; they certainly don't all work with 'very'. Do you have any ideas? In case I misunderstood, the exercise seems to be working OK, although, on second thoughts, I might recategorise 'perfect'.

  9. Adjectives - Learn about the types of adjectives and browse our list of commonly used adjectives. @

  10. This is the best interactive educational blog I've ever come across.
    May I ask how do you make ex 9, 7, 5 and 3. I read your "teacher tools" page. can we make same exercises with these tools?

  11. Thank you so much !!! I'm going to take an exam next week and this is really helpful