Navigating the intricate web of the English language can sometimes feel like a maze, especially when you stumble upon terms like “non-gradable adjectives.” But don’t worry! This article aims to demystify this concept, offering clear explanations and practical examples.

What Are Non-gradable Adjectives?

In English, adjectives describe or modify nouns, giving more information about their nature, quality, or state. Some adjectives express qualities that can vary in intensity or degree and these are called gradable adjectives. For instance, the adjective “cold” can have varying degrees: a little cold, quite cold, very cold, etc.

On the other hand, non-gradable adjectives describe qualities that cannot vary in intensity or degree. These qualities are either present or absent, with no middle ground. In other words, something either has the quality or it doesn’t. Therefore, we don’t usually use intensifiers like “very” or “quite” with non-gradable adjectives.

Learn all about parts of speech in this article.

Examples of Non-gradable Adjectives

1. Absolute Qualities:

  • Empty: A bottle is either empty or it’s not.
    • Example: The bottle was empty. (NOT: The bottle was quite empty.)
  • Pregnant: A person is either pregnant or not.
    • Example: She is pregnant. (NOT: She is a bit pregnant.)
  • Unique: Something is either unique or it’s not.
    • Example: This artwork is unique. (NOT: This artwork is very unique.)
  • Alive: Something is either alive or it isn’t.
    • Example: The plant is alive. (NOT: The plant is slightly alive.)
  • Whole: An object is either whole or broken.
    • Example: The vase is whole. (NOT: The vase is almost whole.)
  • Infinite: Something is either infinite or finite.
    • Example: The universe is infinite. (NOT: The universe is quite infinite.)
  • Dead: A creature or person is either dead or alive.
    • Example: The mouse was dead. (NOT: The mouse was very dead.)
  • Complete: A task is either complete or incomplete.
    • Example: The project is complete. (NOT: The project is totally complete.)
  • Final: Something is either final or preliminary.
    • Example: This is my final decision. (NOT: This is almost my final decision.)
  • Perfect: Something is either perfect or flawed.
    • Example: Her score was perfect. (NOT: Her score was very perfect.)
  • True: A statement is either true or false.
    • Example: The rumour is true. (NOT: The rumour is very true.)
  • Total: It either encompasses everything or it doesn’t.
    • Example: The destruction was total. (NOT: The destruction was somewhat total.)

Note: In informal English, we may break these rules. For example, we might say that a woman is “very pregnant” if she is in the late stages of pregnancy. Likewise, something dead might informally be called “very dead.” This is an example of breaking the rules of grammar for a specific effect (exaggeration).

2. Extremes:

  • Freezing: This term already indicates an extremely cold temperature.
    • Example: The water was freezing. (NOT: The water was quite freezing.)
  • Hilarious: Indicates something extremely funny.
    • Example: The joke was hilarious. (NOT: The joke was a bit hilarious.)
  • Exhausted: Indicates being extremely tired.
    • Example: I was exhausted after the marathon. (NOT: I was very exhausted after the marathon.)
  • Incredible: Indicates something that is hard to believe because it’s so good or extreme.
    • Example: The performance was incredible. (NOT: The performance was quite incredible.)
  • Starving: Indicates extreme hunger.
    • Example: I haven’t eaten all day; I’m starving. (NOT: I’m a little starving.)
  • Ecstatic: Indicates extreme happiness.
    • Example: She was ecstatic about her promotion. (NOT: She was slightly ecstatic about it.)
  • Furious: Indicates extreme anger.
    • Example: He was furious when he found out the truth. (NOT: He was somewhat furious.)
  • Spotless: Indicates something being extremely clean or without a blemish.
    • Example: The room was spotless. (NOT: The room was kind of spotless.)
  • Devastated: Indicates extreme sadness or destruction.
    • Example: She was devastated by the news. (NOT: She was a little devastated.)
  • Immaculate: Indicates perfect cleanliness or neatness.
    • Example: His suit was immaculate. (NOT: His suit was quite immaculate.)
  • Horrendous: Indicates something extremely unpleasant or horrifying.
    • Example: The accident scene was horrendous. (NOT: The accident scene was slightly horrendous.)
  • Infinite: Indicates limitless extent or endlessness.
    • Example: The universe’s possibilities are infinite. (NOT: The universe’s possibilities are somewhat infinite.)
  • Elated: Indicates being extremely happy or proud.
    • Example: He was elated after winning the award. (NOT: He was a bit elated.)

Here’s a visual lesson on extreme adjectives:

3. Unique Qualities:

  • Equal: Indicates that two things are the same in some way.
    • Example: These two pieces are equal in size. (NOT: These two pieces are very equal in size.)
  • Universal: Indicates that something is true or relevant for everyone or everything.
    • Example: This rule is universal. (NOT: This rule is quite universal.)
  • Complete: Indicates that something is 100% done or whole.
    • Example: The report is complete. (NOT: The report is quite complete.)
  • Alive: Indicates something is living.
    • Example: The plant is still alive. (NOT: The plant is somewhat alive.)
  • Infinite: Refers to something without end or limits.
    • Example: Space seems infinite. (NOT: Space seems a bit infinite.)
  • Dead: The state of not being alive.
    • Example: The battery is dead. (NOT: The battery is very dead.)
  • Perfect: Without any flaws or errors.
    • Example: The score was perfect. (NOT: The score was very perfect.)
  • Single: Indicates only one.
    • Example: There’s a single apple left. (NOT: There’s a very single apple left.)
  • Final: Indicates the last in a sequence or the end.
    • Example: This is the final decision. (NOT: This is a quite final decision.)
  • Unanimous: Indicates everyone is in agreement.
    • Example: The decision was unanimous. (NOT: The decision was almost unanimous.)
  • Absolute: Complete and total.
    • Example: She has absolute trust in him. (NOT: She has very absolute trust.)
  • Eternal: Lasting forever, without end.
    • Example: Love is eternal. (NOT: Love is somewhat eternal.)

Common Misconceptions with Non-gradable Adjectives

Many learners might be tempted to use intensifiers with non-gradable adjectives, especially when trying to emphasise a point. Phrases like “absolutely perfect” or “completely unique” might sound right because they’re often used colloquially, but technically, they’re redundant. “Perfect” and “unique” are absolute in their meanings; something cannot be more or less perfect or unique.

Read more about common grammatical errors.

How to Spot Non-gradable Adjectives

One way to identify them is to ask if the quality being described can exist in different amounts or degrees. If the answer is no, then it’s likely non-gradable. Remember, practice makes perfect! The more you read and listen to native speakers, the easier it becomes to recognise and use non-gradable adjectives correctly.

In summary, non-gradable adjectives are a fascinating facet of the English language, reminding us of the precision and richness of our vocabulary. While they may seem tricky at first, understanding their nature and when to use them can significantly elevate the clarity and accuracy of your communication.