TESOL/Gradable words

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You can say "very good" and "absolutely fantastic." Why can't you say "very fantastic" or "absolutely good?"

Some words in English are essentially very strong in meaning or indicate a category in which membership is absolute. For example, "perfect" is the extreme of "good," "freezing" is the extreme of "cold," and "hilarious" is the extreme of "funny." These extreme words are known as non-gradable, and words that can be modified in degree are known as gradable.

Mechanics[edit]

Absolutely and completely[edit]

Non-gradable words describing extremes or absolutely take "absolutely" or "completely." You cannot use "absolutely" or "completely" with words that are not extreme in meaning.

Gradable Non-gradable
very cold very freezing
absolutely cold absolutely freezing
  • They're completely dead. They're very dead
  • That's completely impossible. That's very impossible.

Quite[edit]

The word quite is unusual in that it can be used for both gradable and non-gradable words.

  • Today is quite cold/freezing.
  • Your cooking is quite good/delicious.
  • I was quite surprised/amazed.

Examples[edit]

Below is a table of pairs of gradable and non-gradable words:

Gradable Non-gradable
good delicious
good
  • fantastic
  • awesome
  • great
  • perfect
funny hilarious
cold freezing
strange bizarre
special unique
bad
  • horrible
  • awful
  • terrible
surprising
  • unbelievable
  • amazing
surprised
  • amazed
  • astonished
hungry starving
hard impossible
hot
  • scorching
  • boiling

Quiz[edit]

Turn these plain sentences into stronger ones by changing the word in italics.

1 I was surprised to hear from you.

I was

to hear from you.

2 Your apple pie was good.

Your apple pie is

.

3 Today is hot.

Today is

.

4 I am hungry.

I am

.

5 Your drawing is bad.

Your drawing is

.