Non-Gradable and Gradable Adjectives in Grammar

Three piggy banks of gradually smaller sizes
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In English grammar, gradability is the semantic property of an adjective that identifies different levels or degrees of the quality it denotes, such as small, smaller, smallest.

An adjective that is gradable (or scalar) can be used in the comparative or superlative forms, or with words such as very, fairly, rather, and less. Although many adjectives are gradable, not all of them are gradable in the same way. "The big divide," says Antonio Fabregas, "is the distinction between qualitative and relational adjectives" (The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, 2014).

Examples and Observations

  • "There is a vast difference between better and best. You may be better than the rest, but you are not a success until you have made the effort to become the best you can be."
    (John Wooden, Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success. Regal, 2005)
  • "I want to go on record right now, that this is the most stupid, dimwitted, idiotic, moronic piece of putrefied garbage that I have ever in my entire professional career had the displeasure of being involved with."
    (Richard Dreyfuss as Chris Lecce in Another Stakeout, 1993)
  • "Happy insect! what can be
    In happiness compared to thee?
    Thou dost drink and dance and sing,
    Happier than the happiest king!"
    (Abraham Cowley, "The Grasshopper")
  • "Gradable/Non-gradable
    Adjectives fall into these two subclasses according to two criteria: (1) whether the adjective can have a 'comparative' and a 'superlative' form; (2) whether the adjective can be modified by an intensifying adverb (e.g., very). For example, big is a gradable adjective: it can form a comparative (bigger) and a superlative (biggest), and it can be modified by an intensifier (very big). On the other hand, the adjective wooden (i.e., 'made of wood') is non-gradable; it fulfills none of the criteria."
    (H. Jackson, Grammar and Vocabulary. Routledge, 2002)
  • "Adjectives are often considered to be the prototypical example of a 'gradable' category. Degree expressions such as too are restricted to adjectives and morphological comparatives. This has led several linguists to conclude that gradability is a distinctive property of adjectives, while others rather insist on the fact that gradability is found across categories."
    (Jenny Doetjes, "Adjectives and Degree Modification," in Adjectives and Adverbs: Syntax, Semantics, and Discourse, ed. L. McNally and C. Kennedy. Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • "The age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer;
    But being spent, the worse and worst
    Times still succeed the former."
    (Robert Herrick, "Song")
  • Gradability and Suppletion
    - "Sometimes we find the phenomenon known as suppletion, where word forms of different historical origins stand in the same sort of relationship within a grammatical paradigm . . .. Thus, worse and worst stand in the same paradigmatic relationship to bad as poorer and poorest do to poor. . . . Both forms go back to the Old English period (Old English wyrsa and wyrst), and they have been the antonyms of better and best (Old English betra and betst) throughout their history in English, but the adjective in the general sense 'bad' to which they correspond (again suppletively) as comparative and superlative in Old English is yfel (modern English evil)."
    (Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford University Press, 2009)
    - "Good, better, best,
    never let it rest
    till your good is
    better, and your
    better best."
    (This early-20th-century dictation exercise illustrates the suppletive comparative and superlative forms of the adjective good.)
  • The Lighter Side of Gradability
    George Costanza: You're gonna over-dry your laundry.
    Jerry Seinfeld: You can't over-dry.
    George: Why not?
    Jerry: Same reason you can't over-wet. You see, when something's wet, it's wet. Same thing with death. Like, once you die, you're dead. Let's say you drop dead and I shoot you. You're not gonna die again, you're already dead. You can't over-die, you can't over-dry.
    "One closing grammar note: I got several letters from people who informed me that 'stupidest' and 'stupider' are not real words.
    "To those people, I say, with gratitude and sincerity: Oh, shut up."
    (Dave Barry, "Hoosier Your Daddy." The Baltimore Sun, January 12, 2003)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Non-Gradable and Gradable Adjectives in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Non-Gradable and Gradable Adjectives in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Non-Gradable and Gradable Adjectives in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).