Gradable Adjectives

What Are Gradable Adjectives?

Gradable adjectives are descriptive adjectives that can vary in strength. Most descriptive adjectives are gradable. Here is an example of gradability with the adjective "bright":
  • A bright light
  • (In this example, the adjective "bright" has not been graded.)
  • A very bright light
  • An extremely bright light
  • A fairly bright light
The examples above show that "bright" can vary in strength; therefore, it is a gradable adjective. Notice how a modifier (e.g., very, extremely) can be used to determine the adjective's strength compared to the adjective alone. When an adjective can be graded in this way, it possesses a quality called "gradability," and it is classified as a gradable adjective.

Not all adjectives are gradable. If an adjective already expresses the highest position on the strength scale, then it is classified as non-gradable. For example:
  • The very main actor wrong cross
  • The very principal reason wrong cross
  • A very unique situation wrong cross
  • A very dead mouse wrong cross
It is not uncommon for grammarians to debate whether an adjective is gradable or non-gradable. The words "unique" and "dead" often attract this debate. Is a mouse flattened by a steamroller more dead than one that recently died of heart failure? Some grammarians say yes. Some say no. If you find yourself having a similar debate over a word, then rest assured that all protagonists in your debate understand the concept of gradability of adjectives.

Table of Contents

  • Degrees of Comparison
  • Forming Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
  • Why Gradable Adjectives Are Important
  • Key Points
  • Test Time!

Degrees of Comparison

As we've seen, the strength of a gradable adjective can be expressed using modifiers (usually adverbs like "very" and "extremely"). However, an adjective's strength can also be shown with one of the three degrees of comparison. The three degrees of comparison are as follows:
  • The positive degree
    • bright, tall, heavy, beautiful
    • (The strength of these adjectives has not been changed. These are called positive or absolute adjectives.)
  • The comparative degree
    • brighter, taller, heavier, more beautiful
    • (These are called comparative adjectives. They are formed by adding the suffix "-er" or preceding with "more." They are used to describe the better of two choices.)
  • The superlative degree
    • brightest, tallest, heaviest, most beautiful
    • (These are called superlative adjectives. They are formed by adding "-est" or preceding with "most." They are used to describe the best of three or more choices.)
Here are some example sentences using comparative and superlative adjectives:
  • I have two managers. Janet is the better manager. correct tick
  • I have five managers. Janet is the best manager. correct tick
  • Which is the taller tree? correct tick
  • (From this, readers would infer there were two trees.)
  • Who is the cleverest student? correct tick
  • (From this, readers would infer there were three or more students.)
gradable adjectives

Forming Comparative and Superlative Adjectives

Here are some more examples of gradable adjectives showing their positive, comparative, and superlative forms. These examples also show how to form the degrees of comparison:

For a gradable adjective with one syllable:

  • add "er" for the comparative or "est" for the superlative.
positive
degree
comparative
degree
superlative
degree
talltallertallest
strongstrongerstrongest

For a gradable adjective with one syllable ending vowel-consonant:

  • double the consonant, then add "er" for the comparative or "est" for the superlative.
positive
degree
comparative
degree
superlative
degree
bigbiggerbiggest
thinthinnerthinnest

For a gradable adjective of more than one syllable:

  • precede with "more" for the comparative or "most" for the superlative.
positive
degree
comparative
degree
superlative
degree
dangerousmore dangerousmost dangerous
complicatedmore complicatedmost complicated

For a gradable adjective of more than one syllable ending "-y":

  • remove the "-y," then add "-ier" for the comparative or "-iest" for the superlative.
positive
degree
comparative
degree
superlative
degree
happyhappierhappiest
sillysilliersilliest

Irregular gradable adjectives:

  • Some adjectives are irregular and must be learned individually. (Many of the irregular adjectives are extremely common.)
positive
degree
comparative
degree
superlative
degree
badworseworst
goodbetterbest
Gradable adjectives are important for three reasons:

(Reason 1) Using a modifier with a gradable adjective might indicate a weak adjective.

If you use a modifier with an adjective, you should consider a better, stronger adjective. For example:
  • A very smelly fish wrong cross
  • ("Smelly" is a gradable adjective. In this example, it has been strengthened with "very." This example is not grammatically incorrect. However, I have marked it with wrong cross because it is lazy writing.)
  • A rancid fish correct tick
  • ("Rancid" is a much better adjective. It is so strong, it does not need "very." This is a far sharper sentence.)

The best writing is precise and concise.

To find the perfect adjective, writers often use a thesaurus to look for a strong alternative to a simple adjective that isn't quite right. Here is another example:
  • You have very clean windows. wrong cross
  • (This is lazy writing. "Clean" is a simple adjective. A good writer would say it is a weak adjective. It requires "very" to strengthen it.)
Here are some stronger alternatives from a thesaurus:
  • immaculate, spotless, unblemished, shiny, sparkling
Let's rewrite our sentence with a stronger adjective:
  • You have spotless windows. correct tick
  • (This is far sharper.)

Top Tip

Writers who find adjectives that fit perfectly do not use intensifiers like "very" and "extremely."

(Reason 2) Gradable adjectives provide nuance in descriptions.

Gradable adjectives allow for a range of intensities in descriptions, enabling more precise and nuanced expression. For example, by using gradable adjectives like "cold," "colder," and "coldest," a speaker can accurately convey the varying degrees of temperature. Such precision helps to paint a clearer picture or provide specific information.

They are essential for describing emotions or subjective issues. When describing experiences, feelings, or opinions, gradable adjectives help to convey the depth and intensity of these sentiments. For example, describing something as "extremely beautiful" or "slightly annoying" expresses not just a fact about the object but also the speaker's personal reaction to it.

(Reason 3) Gradable adjectives provide relative comparisons.

Comparing one thing to another is a key part of everyday conversation, academic writing, and business correspondence. Such comparisons can be used with applying modifiers or the degrees of comparison to gradable adjectives.
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.