Gradable Adjectives

Adjectives - describing words - are common in English. But when we want to emphasise them, what do we say?

"Very easy" is great English! "Very perfect" isn't English.

How do you know when to use the right words? We use gradable adjectives.

Adjectives, as you probably know, are describing words. They add information about a noun - a thing, or a concept.  For instance:

  • “I have a house.” - tells me that you have a house

  • “I have a big house.” - tells me that it is big house

But you could give me even more information, by adding a modifier. You could say:

 

  • “I have a pretty big house.” (It’s reasonably big.)

  • “I have a really big house.” (It’s very big - bigger than mine!)

  • “I have an extremely big house!”  (Wow! Maybe you have 14 bedrooms and a swimming pool!)

 

 

As well as this, not all adjectives are the same! There are regular adjectives, gradable adjectives, extreme adjectives and more. Find out more below!

An extremely large house!

Open Argot Top Tips!

Using the wrong kind of modifier is very common for learners.  Remember these tips and it will help!

  • Use gradable modifiers with gradable adjectives

  • Use non-gradable modifiers with non-gradable adjectives

  • Never say 'very...' before non-gradable adjectives!

  • Don't use downtoners with non-gradable adjectives

Gradable Adjectives

When we can use another word like "pretty", or "very" with an adjective, we say the adjective is gradable. It’s like a grade for an examination or certificate:

 

  • “I speak English at CEFR grade B1.”

 

Most adjectives are gradable. For instance, there are various grades of being wet, or happy, or cold. So we can say ‘very happy’, ‘really wet’, ‘pretty cold’, ‘extremely dangerous’ and so on.  

When we use words like 'very', 'really', 'pretty', 'extremely' to modify an adjective, we call them modifiers.

 

If they emphasise the adjective - make it more intense - they're called intensifiers.

 

There’s another kind of modifier which does the opposite - they make the adjective less intense. We call them downtoners:

“It’s cold.”

“It’s fairly cold.”  (It’s quite cold - I can feel it, but it’s not a problem.)

“It’s a little bit cold.” (I hadn’t really noticed, but now you say it, I suppose it is slightly cold.)

Gradable Modifiers

Most adjectives are gradable adjectives. We can use modifiers to make them stronger or weaker.

Here are some common modifiers for gradable adjectives:

 

Intensifiers:

really

very

extremely

terribly

awfully

Downtoners:

fairly

a little

slightly

somewhat

pretty

Non-gradable Adjectives

There are two kinds of adjectives which aren’t gradable, for different reasons.  We can still use modifiers, but we need to use different ones.

 

 

Absolute adjectives

 

Some adjectives aren’t gradable because… well, it just doesn’t make sense.  Can you be ‘very dead’, or ’slightly pregnant’? 

 

You’re either dead, or you’re not dead. You can’t be ‘very dead’, or ‘slightly pregnant’.

 

These are called absolute adjectives. In general they describe things are either one thing or another.  For instance - words like unique, pregnant, perfect, dead. 

We can still use modifiers with them - but we use different ones:

 

  • “Your essay is absolutely perfect.”

  • “I’m sorry, but we can’t do it today. It’s completely impossible.”

  • “Losing her job was a totally devastating experience for Lucy.”

Extreme Adjectives

Finally, there are a small set of adjectives which are non-gradable because the word itself contains the idea of a grade. It’s as if there’s an unwritten ‘very’:

  • amazing (‘very good’)

  • enormous: (‘very big’)

  • freezing: (‘very cold’)

  • starving:  (‘very hungry’)

Non-gradable Modifiers

For all non-gradable adjectives, we only use modifiers which intensify the extreme, or absolute nature of the adjective. We don’t use downtoners:

Intensifiers:

absolutely

totally

completely

utterly

really

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