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Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Gradable & Ungradable Adjectives

Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Gradable & Ungradable Adjectives


Adjectives are the 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 completely 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 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 how we can modify their meaning.


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.

Advanced Grammar for IELTS: Gradable & Ungradable Adjectives

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 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)


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 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, there are some adjectives which 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!


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 instea

d 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
as intensifiers:

  • 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.

Also check :


Exercise 1: Classify the adjectives into Gradable Adjectives & Ungradable  Adjectives. Each will contain ten adjectives.

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

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).

virtually       very       somewhat          a bit          highly         absolutely           slightly      fabulously                 fairly
Make these sentences weaker:
The dress I bought yesterday is damaged…….That 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………………………………………………..

Exercise 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 really 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.

Exercise 4. Six of these sentences contain mistakes. Tick (✓) the correct sentences, then find the mistakes and correct them.

  1. We thought the staterooms in the White House were really 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. …………………..

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Sowmya is a content writer and is passionate about her job. She currently works on editing and writing engaging content for IELTS Material. She also has experience in the Software Testing Industry and has worked with Wipro for five and a half years.

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