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The following applies to both adjectives and adverbs because the considerations are the same.

Before we start, mark the following right or wrong in your head and then click on the table for an answer.

gradability task

If you have ticked a bit uniquely and crossed very blue, don't worry.  You are in good company.
The distinction here is that freezing, marvellously and uniquely are examples of ungradable adjectives or adverbs but tall, warm, blue and humid are usually considered gradable.


Most adjectives and most adverbs are gradable

By some estimates (probably wild guesses, in fact) there are some 100,000 adjectives and adverbs in English and the overwhelming majority will be gradable in the normal way.
We are, therefore, dealing with exceptions.


A matter of scales

Some adjectives aren't

Ungradable adjectives and adverbs are variously called, strong, extreme or superlative adjectives and adverbs.  They either:

  1. cannot be scaled.
    So, for example, the adjective original (as in the original book) is not gradable because it does not represent a point on a scale.  The same applies to perfectly, for example.


  1. already represent the limits of a scale.
    The adjective cool (gradable) represents a point on a scale from freezing (ungradable) to boiling (ungradable)The same applies to fantastically, for example.


Tests for gradability

Ungradable adjectives and adverbs are often distinguished by these tests:

There are problems with these tests, as we shall see.


3 classes of ungradable adjectives and adverbs

The normal way to analyse the issue is to identify three basic classes of ungradable adjectives and adverbs:

  1. Those whose meaning is in some way absolute.
    These include words such as ultimate(ly), total(ly), entire(ly), unique(ly), absolute(ly), utter(ly), perfect(ly) where it is logically impossible to conceive of a grade.  Terms like *more unique, *very perfectly and so on are, therefore, often considered wrong although you will find plenty of examples of their use: more average, less uniquely, very complete, more extreme, more total etc.  Or even:
    most unique
    What one is prepared to accept is often a matter of formality and personal preference.
  2. Words which refer to a specific on-off quality.  These are usually adjectives and adverbs such as metal, pregnant, unlocked, French, fatally, justly etc.  The reason these are not gradable is that one is either pregnant or not, something is either metal or it isn't, locked or unlocked and you are either fatally wounded or not (there's no intermediate stage).  Again, this is often a rule flouted in colloquial speech and terms such as She's very French to refer to an attitude rather than a nationality are common.  Note, too, that we can have less full, half empty and so on but not *very empty although very full is heard.
    In the Daily Telegraph (a British national newspaper), we find, e.g.:
    We're just very grateful that he's survived this incident because it could have turned out to be quite fatal
    (The Daily Telegraph website)
  3. Words which in themselves include the concept of very or extremely.  It is often averred (and it is often told to learners) that some 'extreme' adjectives and adverbs can only be modified with words like utterly, completely, really etc.  The commonest lists include items such as:
    Gradable form Ungradable form
    hot boiling
    cold freezing
    beautiful stunning
    surprisingly amazingly
    good wonderful
    badly awfully
    rudely obnoxiously
    nice delicious
    and so on.


Problems with the tests and classification


Problem 1

Expressions such as:
    the most delicious meal I've ever eaten
    the most objectionable person she met
    the hotel was more awful
    he behaved very obnoxiously
    very amazingly, he came on time
etc. are really quite common.  One person's ungradable term is another's gradable one.  Will you accept more amazing?  Many would.
The insertion of even before more makes the expression usually (even more) acceptable.


Problem 2

Some purportedly ungradable adjectives and adverbs occur commonly in superlative and comparative structures.  For example
    the most stunning performance of the evening
    the most incredibly stupid thing he's ever done
    it is hard to imagine a more amazingly constructed plot


Problem 3

Language changes.  Once, for example, the words incredible and awesome were clearly superlatives in themselves and only gradable with intensifying adverbs such as utterly, perfectly, absolutely etc.
Now, however, both words often mean something like good and have become gradable in expressions very incredible, very awesome etc.

The distinction is, however, still a useful one for some teaching purposes if it's handled with care.
It is true that some adjectives and adverbs can only generally be modified with intensifying adverbs such as utterly, completely etc. but there are many exceptions and matters of personal choice to take into account.
What is also true is that wholly gradable forms cannot usually be modified with these intensifiers: *I am completely cold, *it is utterly hot etc. are not allowed but even in this case there are questionable examples.  Will you accept they are perfectly bad, she spoke utterly rudely, we were absolutely well?


A different way to look at gradability

We can consider what classes of adjectives and adverbs truly are ungradable.  Here's a short list:

  1. Adverbs which act to join ideas (conjuncts): we can't have *more however, for example.
  2. Intensifiers and downtoners such as really and slightly: we can't have *more really, or *a bit somewhat (although very slightly occurs).
  3. Adjectives which are only used attributively (see the guide to adjectives for more) such as main, principle etc.: we can't have *the very main reason, for example.
  4. Additive adverbs: we can't have *more additionally, *most furthermore etc.
  5. Adjectives describing origin: *more German, *less Italian, *fully Martian are all wrong unless they describe behaviour rather than provenance.
  6. Classifiers: these are not true adjectives but serve to tell us what class of object we are dealing with rather than what it's like.  For example, you cannot have *a more medical doctor, *a hugely economic problem, *a very racing car, *a hugely oak tree etc.  Classifiers may also be called noun adjuncts.
  7. Temporal and spatial adjectives and adverbs: *more soon, *extremely present, *less daily, *most annual, *more here, *most above etc. are not allowed.  (Although we can have extreme left, further east etc.)


Modifiers used with both types

A small range of modifiers can be used with both gradable and ungradable adverbs and adjectives:

fairly, really, pretty
although pretty is somewhat informal all three of these modifiers can be used with gradable and ungradable words.  We can have, therefore, fairly amazing, fairly cool, pretty stunningly, pretty warm, really super, really poorly etc.
quite and rather
these modifiers take on different senses with gradable and ungradable words.
quite interesting(ly) = fairly interesting(ly)
quite fascinating(ly) = absolutely fascinating(ly)
rather cold(ly) = fairly cold(ly)
rather wonderful(ly) = exceptionally wonderful
The words are usually stressed with ungradable words and often used in combination with really.  For example, it was really rather stunning.


Meaning changes

Some adjectives and adverbs are homonyms (words which look and sound the same but have different meanings).  Compare these:

He is originally from London (ungradable: provenance)
He writes very originally (gradable: inventively)
She's my old English teacher (ungradable: former)
She's an old lady (gradable: elderly)
They have common concerns (ungradable: shared)
It's a common problem
(gradable: not rare)

So beware.  Gradability is not at all a simple matter of telling people that some words are or are not gradable.

Another cautionary note is that what are gradable adjectives and adverbs in English are treated differently in other languages and vice versa.


Teaching gradability

It's easy enough to write tests and exercises focusing on gradability but less easy to teach the forms and variability.  The best advice may simply be to consider the issue of (un)gradability as and when it arises.  What is not really arguable is that any attempt to learn lists of ungradable words is likely to end in failure.  There are just too many and they come with too many exceptions.
However, if you do want to centre a teaching routine on the topic, here are some ideas.
Any topic which is likely to require the deployment of a range of adjectives and adverbs is suitable as a lesson theme aimed at gradability awareness.

It is not desperately difficult to think of other topics which will evince the use of gradable and ungradable adjectives and adverbs.  The devil is, however, in the detail.  You need to be quite clear (gradable or ungradable use of clear?) in your own mind how the adjectives and adverbs should be used.

Related guides
adjective: essentials for an essential guide to adjectives
adjectives for the in-service guide which is much more detailed (and difficult)
adverb modifiers for the in-service guide how adverbs function to emphasise, amplify and tone down

The Daily Telegraph website, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/19/australian-teenager-almost-mauled-death-jumping-crocodile-infested/