Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Gradable & Ungradable Adjectives
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Adjectives are words that describe the qualities of other words. They also add some interesting meaning to what you say or write. To explain in simple words, gradable adjectives are those which add degree to whatever you say. For example, cold, hot, cheap, expensive, and so on. The meaning of these adjectives can be simplified by adding an adverb in front of them.
Whereas the non-gradable adjectives describe the qualities that are entirely present or completely absent. For example, married, wooden, the word should be complete on its own.
A Lesson to Help IELTS Learners Utilize Adjectives More Effectively in IELTS Writing and Speaking
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 how we use these two kinds of adjectives can cause problems even for advanced students. This unit looks at these different types of adjectives and how we can modify their meaning.
Modifying Gradable 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 describe the limits of a scale.
We can make comparative and superlative forms from all gradable adjectives.
A: This skirt is a lot less expensive than the others.
B: Yes, it’s much cheaper. Let’s buy some.
Strengthen the Adjective:
We can make gradable adjectives stronger with very, but not with the adverb absolutely:
X That new jacket looks absolutely expensive.
V 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 right’s match was terribly exciting.
- I felt pretty upset after the accident. (informal).
- The chapter on the early sonnets was most instructive (formal).
We are often useless 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.
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
With gradable adjectives, quite usually means somewhat- but can have other meanings. The different definitions are only apparent in spoken English as they are dependent on stress and intonation:
- The lecture was quite interesting (unmarked = fairly interesting)
- quite interesting (emphasis on adjective = more interesting than the speaker expected)
- quite interesting (focus on adverb = less interesting than the speaker expected)
Modifying Ungradable Adjectives
Ungradable adjectives (e.g., enormous, vast. tiny, priceless, free) have a meaning that
represents a scale’s limit. 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 Entronce to the museum is very free
✓ Entrance to the museum is absolutely free
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, some adjectives are never intensified with absolutely, and somewhere 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 the most amazing hairstyle.
Almost, nearly, practically, virtually, 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
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!
Modifying Adjectives in Informal English
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 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 several slang words (e.g. bleeding) can be used
- The rollercoaster ride was dead scary
Note: We usually do not use these colloquial modifiers informal English:
- [Her Majesty was dead interested in the traditional Maori dancing.]
- [The bank is sorry about having to refuse your application for a loan ]
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 = 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.
Exercise 1: Classify the adjectives into Gradable Adjectives & Ungradable Adjectives. Each will contain ten adjectives.
Exercise 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).
Make these sentences weaker:
- The dress I bought yesterday is damaged.
- That dress I bought yesterday is (o) __slightly__ damaged.
- These days mobile phones are inexpensive____.
- Be careful changing gear; the gearstick’s stiff____.
- The inscription on the tomb was indecipherable____.
- Many of the Inca religious ceremonies were bloodthirsty____.
Make these sentences stronger:
- Jane s flat was freezing last night____.
- This new computer game sounds interesting____.
- Hilary’s new boyfriend is rich____.
- Victory in our next game seems unlikely____.
Exercise 3: Match the labels (A-D) with the sentences (1-6). Some labels may be used more than once.
|A. US English
|D. very informal
- We were wearing the same outfit! It was dead embarrassing.
- The cave paintings were really impressive.
- I thought Dave s behaviour was a bit bizarre last night.
- The professor’s lecture was most illuminating.
- Francis Bacon’s later works were somewhat disturbing
- These new engines are pretty reliable.
Exercise 4: Six of these sentences contain mistakes. Tick (✓) the correct sentences, then find the mistakes and correct them.
- We thought the staterooms in the White House were really impressive! ____
- I’m afraid there’s nothing to eat; the fridge is very empty. ____
- The tour bus is completely full so I’ve only got six seats left to offer you. ____
- I love these awayday’ tickets; they’re nice and cheap. _____
- We chose the hotel because it was very recommended by our neighbours. ____
- If you were really serious about your studies, you would have given up that evening job. _____
- Everyone in our class loves Jackie – she’s dead friendly. ____
- Jack was a very built man with massive shoulders and a menacing stare.____
- I found the funeral ceremony absolutely moving. ____
- The Ambassador would be really delighted to accept this honour on behalf of the President. ____