Adjectives describe qualities (characteristics) of nouns. Some qualities can vary in intensity or “grade”, for example:

  • rather hot, hot, very hot; hot, hotter, the hottest

The adjective hot is gradable.

Other qualities cannot vary in intensity or grade because they are:

  • extremes (for example: freezing)
  • absolutes (for example: dead)
  • classifying (for example: nuclear)

The adjectives freezing, dead and nuclear are non-gradable.

non-gradable-adjectives

Gradable Adjectives

A gradable adjective can be used with “grading adverbs” that vary the adjective’s grade or intensity. Look at these examples:

grading adverbs
a little, dreadfully, extremely, fairly, hugely, immensely, intensely, rather, reasonably, slightly, unusually, very
+ gradable adjectives
angry, big, busy, clever, cold, deep, fast, friendly, good, happy, high, hot, important, long, popular, rich, strong, tall, warm, weak, young

Non-gradable Adjectives

A non-gradable adjective cannot be used with grading adverbs:

  • It was rather freezing outside.
  • The dog was very dead.
  • He is investing in slightly nuclear energy.

Non-gradable adjectives do not normally have comparative and superlative forms:

  • freezing, more freezing, the most freezing
  • dead, deader, the deadest
  • nuclear, more nuclear, the most nuclear

Often, non-gradable adjectives are used alone:

  • It was freezing outside.
  • The dog was dead.
  • He is investing in nuclear energy.

However, a non-gradable adjective can be used with “non-grading adverbs” (which usually just give the adjective extra impact), for example:

non-grading adverbs non-gradable adjectives
absolutely awful extreme
utterly excellent
completely terrified
totally dead absolute
nearly impossible
virtually unique
essentially chemical classifying
mainly digital
almost domestic

Here are some example sentences containing non-grading adverbs with non-gradable adjectives:

  • Her exam results were absolutely awful. She will have to take the exam again.
  • Is there anything like it in the world? It must be virtually unique.
  • It starts an essentially chemical reaction.
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