Absolute Adjectives vs. Non-Gradable Adjectives

Suitable for ESL and Grade 6+

Author: Sarah Perowne

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In English, adjectives are words that modify a noun. Gradable adjectives, non-gradable adjectives, or absolute adjectives are types of adjective gradability. Absolute adjectives describe words that can’t be made bigger, modified, or compared. Gradable adjectives, on the other hand, are words that can be modified to increase their intensity and can be used for comparison.

In this guide, we’ll break down adjectives into non-gradable and gradable and give you some examples and exceptions because English is full of contradictions, making it even more fun to learn!

Gradable Adjectives With Examples

With adverbs, gradable adjectives can be modified to be weaker or stronger. Most adjectives are gradable and have degrees to them.

Examples of gradable adjectives

  • Warm
  • Cold
  • Fun
  • Angry
  • Happy
  • Rich
  • Beautiful
  • Important
  • Big
  • Ugly
  • Types of colors
  • Interest
  • Old
  • Young
  • Stale (old, off, moldy)
  • Pretty
  • Clean
  • Expensive
  • Cheap


  • Cold, extremely cold, somewhat cold. 
  • Angry, quite angry, really angry. 
  • Stale, pretty stale, very stale. 
  • Blue, incredibly blue, a bit blue.
  • Big, ridiculously big, fairly big.

You can use sub-modifiers or adverbials to intensify or weaken gradable adjectives:

  • Fairly
  • So
  • Extremely
  • Pretty
  • Very
  • Really
  • Rather
  • Unusually 
  • Quite
  • Almost
  • Totally (Almost and totally can be used together)
  • Relatively
  • Somewhat

Example sentences

  • Wow, it’s pretty hot today!
  • She was extremely angry about it.
  • That’s ridiculously expensive.
  • That’s so cheap!
  • I’m not sure the couch will fit through the door. It’s relatively big.
  • They are unusually quiet today.

Absolute Adjectives: Non-Gradable Adjectives With Examples

Absolute adjectives are types of adjectives sometimes referred to as intensive or incomparable as you can’t compare them to other adjectives.

For example: My house is more finished than yours.

This sentence is incorrect because 'finished' is a non-gradable adjective. It is already a complete adjective in its own right.

In English, an absolute adjective is a type of adjective that is already the best it can be in its base form. It isn’t usually modified, compared, or intensified- it’s a non-gradable adjective. Some grammar guides state that these words are already superlative in their base structure; however, in some contexts, you can modify them with intensifying adverbs such as ‘nearly’ or ‘almost.’

Examples of absolute adjectives

  • Empty
  • Dead
  • Unique (Only when referred to as one of something)
  • Horizontal
  • Perfect
  • Gigantic
  • Brilliant
  • Complete
  • Square
  • Digital
  • Pregnant
  • Absolute
  • Boiling
  • Freezing
  • Universal
  • Fantastic
  • Finished

Non-Gradable Adjectives: Exceptions

When it comes to using absolute adjectives, there is an element of choice, especially in everyday language and literature. In the case of ‘dead and pregnant,’ the person or thing is either pregnant or not pregnant, dead or not dead.

There isn’t really a middle ground. However, and this is very important, you can use certain adverbs or sub-modifiers to modify absolute adjectives to indicate the degree of intensity in some contexts.

  • Very 
  • Almost
  • Nearly
  • Virtually 
  • Practically
  • Just

English speakers do this because it’s fun to play around with language and dramatize situations.

You’ll sometimes see modified absolute adjectives in the following situations:

  • In newspapers and social columns, when adding drama and intensity to a specific story. 
  • When recounting a story to add effect. 
  • In informal speech. 
  • On social media to dramatize or add effect.

Regardless, it’s important to be careful when you modify non-gradable adjectives because, in most cases, it’s unnecessary.

Example sentences

  • They are very pregnant (Meaning someone is about to give birth; however, this could be considered rude, so be careful when using it)
  • The jar of peanut butter is practically empty. (Meaning the jar of peanut butter is almost finished, and they might need to buy another one)
  • Your house is just perfect! (‘Just’ is added for effect, they want to emphasize how much they like it)
  • The picture is nearly horizontal. Move it a little bit to the left. (Meaning the picture needs moving a little bit before it’s in its desired place)
  • I’m absolutely boiling. (Adding intensity to the word, however, boiling is already at its highest degree, ‘absolutely’ is used to add drama in this context.)

As you can see, there are many exceptions in English, but if you’re unsure whether to place an adverb in front of an absolute adjective, think about the context first.

Tips and Tricks: Summary

  • You can modify both non-gradable and gradable adjectives with sub-modifiers 
  • BUT be careful when modifying an absolute adjective.
  • Play around with the language and have fun with it.

There are so many grammar structures to learn, including Positive Adjectives! So, check out our other fantastic learning tools.

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