Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Gradable and ungradable adjectives – Diagnose Test, Grammar Explanation & Practice Exercises

A      DIAGNOSTIC TEST:  Gradable and ungradable adjectives

Five of these sentences contain mistakes with the adverbs and adjectives. Tick (✓) the correct sentences and underline the mistakes.


Some of these new laptops are hideously expensive.    ✓

As usual he bought me something absolutely cheap.


1          Iceland is colder than Sweden.

2          Casualties during the Crimean War were very enormous.

3          Steve’s new girlfriend is very attractive.

4          Clients are advised that Miami tends to be more boiling than Los Angeles during the winter months.

5          Milan cathedral is slightly huge.

6          Thank you. That really was a most delicious meal!

7          In many areas of Europe the wolf is virtually extinct.

8          My friend told me the film was dead exciting.

9          Last night’s episode was really gripping.

10        I can’t stand that actor; he’s absolutely ugly.

11        The club’s very empty for a Saturday night.

12        It’s slightly free to get in; less than one Euro, in fact.


Choose the most appropriate adverb a, b or c, to fill each gap.

13        Jim hates speaking in public; he’s _______ shy.

a absolutely     b completely    c painfully

14        The Wimbledon final was _______ exciting.

a absolutely     b utterly           c terribly

15        Your new bracelet’s beautiful. It looks _______ expensive.

a very              b completely    c absolutely

16        I think I’d better lie down; I feel _______ sick.

a practically     b a little bit      c virtually

17        Yes, sir. You’re _______ correct. I’ll give you a refund.

a quite              b very              c rather

18        Since the accident Clive has been _______ paralysed.

a totally           b absolutely     c very

19        After a month with no rain the grass is _______ dead.

a slightly          b almost           c somewhat

20        I wasn’t expecting much but, surprisingly, the play was _______ good.

a nearly            b absolutely     c quite

B       GRAMMAR EXPLANATION:  Gradable and ungradable adjectives

Adjectives are ‘describing’ words. Most adjectives have a meaning which can be made stronger or weaker; these are called ‘gradable adjectives’. Other adjectives have a meaning which is extreme or absolute and cannot easily be made stronger or weaker. These are called ‘ungradable adjectives’. The differences in the way we use these two kinds of adjectives can cause problems even for advanced students. This unit looks at these different types of adjective and the ways in which we can modify their meaning.


1A. Gradable and ungradable adjectives

 Gradable adjectives represent a point on a scale. For example , cheap and expensive are adjectives on the scale of ‘how much something costs’. Ungradable adjectives represent the limits of a scale

ungradable adjectives

(limit of the scale)

freefreezingvast/ enormous
gradable adjectives(very cheap)


(not very cheap)

(a bit expensive)


(very expensive)











ungradable adjectives

(limit of the scale)

pricelessboilingminute/ tiny

We can make comparative and superlative forms from all gradable adjectives:

Gee, this safari’s a lot less expensive than the others

Yes, It’s much cheaper. Let’s buy some tickets.

1B. Strengthening the adjective

We can make gradable adjectives stronger with very, but not with the adverb absolutely:

X  That new jacket looks absolutely expensive

✓ That new jacket looks very expensive

There are several other modifiers which we use to strengthen the meaning of these adjectives: so, rather, really, extremely, terribly, most (formal), pretty (informal):

Last night’s match was terribly exciting

I felt pretty upset after the accident. (informal)

The chapter on the early sonnets was most instructive. (formal)

We often use less common adverbs to modify certain gradable adjectives. Although very is commonly used to strengthen any adjective, your English will sound more fluent and natural if you learn to use other combinations of adverb and adjective:

I was bitterly disappointed at my exam results.

My brother is painfully shy.

The students in this school are highly intelligent.

Note that we can often only use certain adverbs with certain adjectives (for commonly used combinations).

1C. Weakening the adjective

Gradable adjectives can usually be made weaker by the words fairly, slightly, a (little) bit (informal) and somewhat (formal):

I’ve been feeling slightly dizzy all morning.

My friend was a bit drunk. (informal)

The police reported that the man was somewhat inebriated. (formal)

In conversation, a bit is a useful way to make a critical remark more polite:

You’re a bit overdressed, aren’t you?

We can use not very and not at all to weaken gradable adjectives after the verb be.

The end of term test wasn’t very long and it wasn’t at all difficult.

1D. quite

With gradable adjectives quite usually means ‘fairly’ but can have other meanings. The different meanings are only apparent in spoken English as they are dependent on stress and intonation:

The lecture was quite interesting (unmarked = fairly interesting)

quite interesting (stress on adjective = more interesting than the speaker expected)

quite interesting (stress on adverb = less interesting than the speaker expected)


2A. Ungradable adjectives

Ungradable adjectives (e g. enormous, vast. tiny, priceless, free) have a meaning which represents the limit of a scale. For example the limits of the scale of ‘how much something costs’ are free (= it costs nothing) and priceless (= its cost is too great to be counted). Ungradable adjectives are not usually used in comparatives and superlatives, and we do not use very to make them stronger:

X  The Ming vases are more priceless than the Egyptian mummies.

✓ The Ming vases are more valuable than the Egyptian mummies.

X  Entrance to the museum is very free

✓Entrance to the museum is absolutely free.

2B. Intensifying the adjective

A common way to intensify the meaning of ungradable adjectives is with the adverb absolutely. We use this device to add emphasis in spoken and informal English; it is not common in writing:

I couldn’t swim in the sea; the water was absolutely freezing

The show was absolutely fabulous.

When we use quite with ungradable adjectives, it has a similar meaning to ‘completely’, emphasising the strength of the adjective:

The tenor’s performance was quite amazing

You ‘re quite correct

Although we use absolutely with many ungradable adjectives, there are some adjectives which are never intensified with absolutely and some where we prefer to use other intensifying adverbs such as completely, totally and utterly. There are no grammar rules which explain these combinations so it is best to learn them as vocabulary items.

I’m afraid your answer is completely wrong

Since the accident Henry has been totally deaf in one ear.

Susan was utterly appalled by her husband’s dishonesty.

We can also use ‘a most’ before ungradable adjectives used before a noun:

Hilary has a most amazing hairstyle.

2C. almost, nearly, etc.

We do not usually make ungradable adjectives weaker by using the modifiers fairly, slightly, a (little) bit, somewhat or not very:

X  Their favourite possession is a slightly priceless Satsuma vase.

X  I wouldn’t recommend the show, it’s not very fabulous

But we do use almost, nearly, practically or virtually to indicate a point close to the absolute meaning of ungradable adjectives:

He never turns the heating on – it’s practically freezing in there.

The battery in my calculator is almost dead

After six months with the disease he was nearly deaf and virtually blind

2D. Comparatives and superlatives

Because ungradable adjectives represent the limit of a scale, they are not usually used in comparatives and superlatives. However, in spoken English many ‘ungradable’ adjectives can be used gradably when we are comparing similar things at one end of a scale and can then be used in comparisons:

I’ve never been more exhausted than I was after the New York marathon.

That was the most delicious meal you’ve ever cooked!

With comparatives of this type we often use still more or even more:

Their house is even more enormous than Richard’s!


3A. really, real, etc.

There are several modifiers which we use with both gradable and ungradable adjectives to make their meaning stronger. The most common in informal English is really:

That film was really exciting It’s really freezing in here!

In informal US English real can be used instead of really:

That watch looks real expensive

Expressions such as ‘nice and’ and ‘good and’ can be used to intensify many adjectives:

The hotel was nice and clean. I’ll come when I’m good and ready.

In very informal English, dead and a number of slang words (e.g. bleeding) can be used as intensifies:

The rollercoaster ride was dead scary.

Note: We usually do not use these colloquial modifiers in formal English:

[Her Majesty was dead interested in the traditional Maori dancing.]

[The bank is really sorry about having to refuse your application for a loan.]

3B. Gradable and ungradable

Some adjectives can have both gradable and ungradable meanings, depending on whether the speaker feels the adjective describes an absolute quality or one which is relative to something else:

I’m afraid there are no rooms – the hotel is full. (ungradable = completely full)

The hotel’s very full but I think I can get you a single room for tonight. (gradable = has many guests but there is still some space)

Other adjectives like this are: empty, beautiful, black, delicious, new, possible.


These collocations are taken from the British National Corpus.

(Below, ‘sb’ = somebody and ‘sth’ = something.)

Adverb             +      adjective



cold, disappointed, divided, hostile, humiliated, hurt, opposed, resented, resentful, upset


acclimatised, alone, different, drained, empty/ full, extinguished, immune, (from / to sth), incapable (of sth), incomprehensible, lost, negative, new, open (with sb) (= honest), overlooked, revised, right/ wrong, untenable.


ashamed, attached (to sb/sth) (= strong feeling for), conscious, conservative, depressed, disappointed, disturbed, divided, embedded, embittered, hurt, indebted (to sb), ingrained, in love with, involved, involved (in sth), lamented, meaningful, moving, religious, rutted.


absent, beneficial, clear, different, false, fitting, free, global, impersonal, loyal, new. obvious, serious, unconvincing, unexpected


armed, booked, built, censored, criticised, embroiled (with sb/ sth). flavoured, guarded, involved (in sth), muscled, polluted, populated, protected, publicised, regulated, represented, scented, soiled, taxed.
hideouslybad, burnt, deformed, disfigured, disfiguring, effective, embarrassing, expensive, injured, lurid, mangled, scarred, swollen, ugly, unhygienic.


commended, contagious, controversial, critical, dependent, developed, educated, enjoyable, flexible, intelligent, mobile, paid, personal, polished, political, popular, publicised, qualified, recommended, regarded, relevant, resistant, respected, significant, skilled, specialised, technical, toxic, trained, unlikely, valued, volatile.
painfullyacute, aware, evocative, learned, loud, obvious, self-conscious, sensitive, shy, slow, small, sparse, thin


arranged, balanced, capable, fitting (= appropriate), formed, genuine, good, healthy, normal, placed, proper, rational, reasonable, (all) right, safe, still, straightforward, understandable, valid


damaged, exposed, hit (= damaged), ill. impaired, rich, threatened, undermined, wealthy


abandoned, abused, alien, anaemic, decent, destroyed, different, embarrassed, harmless, homogeneous, honest, impervious (to sth), inadequate, incompetent, integrated, irresistible, logical, new, normal, overpowering, stiff, surprising, unacceptable, unbelievable, undefined, unjustified, wasted.
utterlyabandoned, alone, appalled, careless, dejected, destroyed, devoted (to sb), different, disastrous, fearless, futile, impossible, irresistible, lacking, ruthless, tragic, unacceptable, unattainable, unquestioning, useless, wrecked


Q 1.

Put each adjective into the correct box below. Each box will contain ten adjectives.

amazing         attractive          cold          correct         dead        enormous             exciting    expensive             extinct            fascinating          freezing          good        interesting         huge         large        minute     paralysed        shy       sick       ugly
ungradable adjectivesgradable adjectives



Q 2.

Use the words in the box below to rewrite each sentence, making it either stronger or weaker according to the instructions. Use each word once only. The exercise begins with an example  (0).

virtually        very        somewhat         a bit           highly          absolutely       slightly

fabulously             fairly

Make these sentences weaker:

0          The dress I bought yesterday is damaged

==>      The dress I bought yesterday is slightly damaged

1          These days mobile phones are inexpensive.

2          Be careful changing gear; the gearstick’s stiff.

3          The inscription on the tomb was indecipherable.

4          Many of the Inca religious ceremonies were bloodthirsty.

Make these sentences stronger:

5          Jane’s flat was freezing last night.

6          This new computer game sounds interesting.

7          Hilary’s new boyfriend is rich.

8          Victory in our next game seems unlikely.

Q 3.

Match the labels (A-D) with the sentences (1-6). Some labels may be used more than once.

A US English                  B formal                   C informal                D very informal

1          We were wearing the same outfit! It was dead embarrassing.

2          The cave paintings were real impressive.

3          I thought Dave’s behaviour was a bit bizarre last night.

4          The professor’s lecture was most illuminating.

5          Francis Bacon’s later works were somewhat disturbing.

6          These new engines are pretty reliable.

Q 4.

Read the article below and decide which word (A-C) best fits each space (1-10). The exercise begins with an example (0).

Fakes found in major museums

Oscar White Muscareila, a (0) …respected archeologist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, claims that more than 1,250 forgeries are on display in the world’s leading museums and art galleries. In his latest book Muscarella specifically names 37 forgeries in the Louvre, 16 in the

British Museum and 45 in his own museum in New York. Muscarella’s earlier claims have been heavily (1) …by some museum officials who are (2) … opposed to his arguments. But Muscarella has (3) … good scientific evidence for his claims, showing that over 40 per cent of the objects examined by the Oxford Thermo- luminescence laboratory are fakes. The reason for the quantity of forgeries is (4) … simple. Because many of the objects in our museums were found by amateurs and illegally exported from their countries of origin they have no official provenance or documented history. Museums are painfully (5) … of this embarrassing problem and as a result they have been known to overlook the lack of written records before accepting or buying antiquities. This makes it (6) … impossible to detect forgeries, especially if they are accurate copies. But in fact many forgeries are (7) … obvious as they are often copied from a photograph which only shows the front of an object. When examining the back of the forgery they can look (8) … different from the original. But museum officials tend to be (9) … conservative and hate to question objects which have been sitting in their collections for many years.

Muscarella specialises in the ancient Middle East, and this is the area of archaeology in which he has found so many forgeries. But his research has had the effect of undermining the reputation of some of our most (10) … regarded institutions, and this should be of concern to anyone who values our cultural heritage.












A         absolutely

A         discussed

A         bitterly

A         perfectly

A         virtually

A         conscious

A         very

A         a bit

A         completely

A         heavily

A         very

B highly

B rejected

B highly

B absolutely

B quite

B understanding

B virtually

B entirely

B absolutely

B dead

B highly

C very

C criticised

C rather

C somewhat

C really

C aware

C pretty

C deeply

C almost

C deeply

C absolutely

Q 5.

Six of these sentences contain mistakes. Tick (✓) the correct sentences, then find the mistakes and correct them.

1          We thought the state rooms in the White House were real impressive!

2          I’m afraid there’s nothing to eat; the fridge is very empty.

3          The tour bus is completely full so I’ve only got six seats left to offer you

4          I love these ‘awayday’ tickets; they’re nice and cheap.

5          We chose the hotel because it was very recommended by our neighbours

6          If you were really serious about your studies, you would have given up that evening job.

7          Everyone in our class loves Jackie – she’s dead friendly.

8          Jack was a very built man with massive shoulders and a menacing stare

9          I found the funeral ceremony absolutely moving.

10        The Ambassador would be really delighted to accept this honour on behalf of the President.

Q 6.

This box contains eight groups of gradable and ungradable adjectives with similar meanings. There are four adjectives for each group in the box below. Complete the gaps in the table. The example for nice is provided.

annoyed          boring      brilliant        delighted       diminutive         diverting          ecstatic            engaging      exhilarated     fabulous        famished      fantastic        fascinating       furious happy       hungry   interesting       irate       irritated         little  lovely     minute       ravenous      scarce             starving      stultifying       tedious         tiny       uncommon         uninteresting   unique       unusual




gradable adjectivesungradable adjectives
1 dull…………..…………..…………..…………..  
2 small…………..…………..…………..…………..  
3 amusing…………..…………..…………..…………..  
4 rare…………..…………..…………..…………..  
5 angry…………..…………..…………..…………..  
6 nicelovelyxxxxxxfabulousfantasticbrilliant
7 pleased…………..xxxxxx…………..…………..…………..
8 peckish…………..xxxxxx…………..…………..…………..

Q 7.

The writer of this letter has made mistakes with some of the adjectives she has used. Find the mistakes and substitute suitable alternative adjectives from the table in exercise 6. You can only change the adjectives, everything else must remain the same. There are 14 unsuitable adjectives in the letter, including the example.


1          Dear Susana,

2          Having an absolutely nice time here in Barcelona. The weather has been

3          wonderfully hot and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky. Our hotel is in the

4          Gothic quarter – ifs very minute but quite comfortable. The staff are all very

5          friendly and helpful – we got back from a club at 3 a.m. a couple of days ago –

6          all of us were absolutely hungry of course – and the doorman kindly offered to

7          make us all sandwiches! Steve wasn’t impressed (as usual!), he was actually fairly

8          furious because they didn’t have granary bread!

9          We’ve seen most of the sights in the city. Karen was absolutely pleased when

10        we went to the ‘Sagrada Familia’ – she loves Gaudi’s work. Ifs certainly a totally

11        rare building. And Steve was very ecstatic about going to the Maritime Museum –

12        he seems to find anything to do with boats utterly interesting. I can’t

13        understand it myself. I was absolutely annoyed when he suggested we stay there

14        over lunch time – especially as I was a bit famished at the time (not surprising

15        after two very tedious hours of looking at dusty old ships! It was even more

16        stultifying than that afternoon we spent with the VAT inspectors – if you can

17        imagine such a thing!)

18        The street life here is very fascinating. We’ve spent a lot of time wandering

19        around and staring at the street performers. Luckily there are lots of pavement

20        cafés and ifs very fabulous to simply while away the time watching the world go

21        by.

22        Anyway, I hope things are going well at the office, although I can’t say I’m very

23        exhilarated at the thought of getting back there next week!

24        Lots of love


Eg:  Line 2   nice ==> fabulous


1          ✓

2          very enormous

3          ✓

4          more boiling

5          slightly huge

6          ✓

7          ✓

8          ✓

9          ✓

10        absolutely ugly

11        ✓

12        slightly free

13        c

14        c

15        a

16        b

17        a

18        a

19        b

20        c


Q 1.


amazing correct dead enormous extinct fascinating freezing huge minute paralysed


attractive cold exciting expensive good interesting large shy sick ugly


Q 2.

1 fairly inexpensive

2 a bit stiff

3 virtually indecipherable

4 somewhat bloodthirsty

5 absolutely freezing

6 very interesting

7 fabulously rich

8 highly unlikely

Q 3.

1 D

2 A, C

3  C

4 B

5 B

6 C

Q 4.

 1 C     2 A      3 A      4 B      5 C      6 B

7 B      8 A      9 C      10 B

Q 5.

1 ✓

2 very empty ==> completely empty

3 completely full ==> very full

4 ✓

5 very recommended ==> highly recommended

6 ✓

7 ✓

8 very -built ==> heavily built

9 absolutely moving ==> deeply moving

10 really delighted ==> highly delighted

Q 6.










boring, tedious, uninteresting

diminutive, little, tiny

diverting, engaging, interesting

scarce, uncommon, unusual

annoyed, irate, irritated









delighted, ecstatic, exhilarated

famished, ravenous, starving

Q 7.

Line 4 very minute ==> very small/ tiny

Line 6 absolutely hungry ==> absolutely famished/starving

Lines 7/8 fairly furious ==> fairly annoyed/angry

Line 9 absolutely pleased ==> absolutely delighted

Lines 10/11 totally rare ==> totally unique

Line 11 very ecstatic ==> very pleased/happy

Line 12 utterly interesting ==> utterly fascinating

Line 13 absolutely annoyed ==> absolutely furious

Line 14 a bit famished ==> a bit hungry

Line 16 stultifying ==> boring/uninteresting/tedious

Line 18 very fascinating ==> very amusing/diverting

Line 20 very fabulous ==> very nice/lovely

Lines 22/23 very exhilarated ==> very happy/ pleased

Written By

Misbah Kagad is a Content Marketing Specialist, currently working as IELTS Trainer at Experience Expert with a demonstrated history of working in the education management industry. Skilled in Copywriting, Web Content writing, Management, IELTS and Research. Strong professional with a Diploma focused in Computer Science... Currently helping aspirants to crack IELTS, with tips and tricks to score a bandwidth of 8 and more. Handles the ideation and creation of compelling content including content for IELTS website, writing e-books and solving previous IELTS question papers…

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