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The dynamics of gradable and non-gradable adjectives

While disclosing a gut-wrenching account of domestic violence, some time ago, a middle-aged man declared thus:

“I am very angry at the cruel husband.”

A few minutes after, in an attempt to reiterate his disdain for the malevolent spouse, the middle-aged man said:

“I am very furious at the cruel husband.”

While the narrator’s initial submission was grammatically consummate, his decision to replace ‘angry’ with ‘furious’ rendered the latter declaration grammatically dysfunctional. Nonetheless, I could hardly fault the disgruntled narrator because he was probably unaware that not all adjectives can co-exist with the commonplace intensifier, ‘very’.

That brings us to the thrust of this week’s treatise.

Although I presume that a thumping majority of the readership were schooled that adjectives aptly describe nouns and pronouns, it bears submitting that adjectives are broadly considered as gradable or non-gradable. On the one hand, gradable adjectives embody qualities, such as size, beauty, age, and so forth, which can be measured in degrees. In consequence, they have comparative and superlative forms.

Characteristic examples of gradable adjectives are: old (older, oldest), good (better, best) and dangerous (more dangerous, most dangerous). On top of that, gradable adjectives are often intensified with adverbs like ‘very’, ‘slightly’, ‘a bit’, ‘extremely’, and ‘fairly’. Thus, to portray varying degrees of hotness, I could say something is ‘slightly hot’, ‘very hot’ and ‘extremely hot’.

Non-gradable adjectives, on the other hand, cannot be graded or measured. Therefore, they do not give credence to comparative and superlative forms. These adjectives could either be regarded as ‘absolute’ or ‘extreme’. Absolute adjectives portray qualities that are completely true or untrue, or totally present or absent. By implication, an animal cannot be ‘more dead’ than another animal, as much as a woman is not expected to be ‘more pregnant’ than another woman. Hence, classic examples of absolute adjectives are: dead, pregnant, correct, incorrect, necessary, perfect, impossible, superior, et cetera.

Further to that, extreme adjectives are those non-gradable adjectives that embody ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ in their definitions. Put in perspective, the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘furious’ as ‘extremely angry’, while the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘ridiculous’ as ‘very silly’. It, thus, follows that ‘furious’ and ‘ridiculous’ are extreme (non-gradable) adjectives.

To reinforce these justifications, non-gradable adjectives cannot be modified by the intensifiers used for their gradable counterparts. Non-gradable adjectives, to put the record straight, are intensified with ‘absolutely’, ‘totally’, ‘utterly’, ‘completely’, ‘perfectly’, and ‘entirely’.

this in mind, one can flawlessly appraise the aforementioned pair of sentences thus:

I am very angry at the cruel husband (standard).

I am very furious at the cruel husband (non-standard).

I am absolutely furious at the cruel husband (standard).

Though ‘angry’ is synonymous with ‘furious’, the former is gradable, whereas the latter is non-gradable. Other usages of gradable adjectives and their non-gradable variants are delineated hereunder:

The choir staged a very good performance (standard).

The choir staged a very brilliant performance (non-standard).

The choir staged an absolutely/an utterly/a totally brilliant performance (standard).

The choir staged an absolutely magnificent/superb performance (standard).

Those public facilities are in extremely bad conditions (standard).

Those public facilities are in extremely appalling conditions (non-standard).

Those public facilities are in absolutely/utterly appalling conditions (standard).

I am very sure that John will arrive soon (standard).

I am very positive that John will arrive soon (non-standard).

I am absolutely positive that John will arrive soon (standard).

Eating balanced diets is very/extremely important for growth (standard).

Eating balanced diets is very/extremely critical for growth (non-standard).

Eating balanced diets is absolutely critical for growth (standard).

Your daughters are extremely beautiful (standard).

Your daughters are extremely gorgeous/stunning (non-standard).

Your daughters are absolutely gorgeous/stunning (standard).

Who suggested this very silly idea (standard)?

Who suggested this very ridiculous/absurd/ludicrous idea (non-standard)?

Who suggested this absolutely ridiculous idea (standard)?

Who suggested this completely ludicrous/absurd idea (standard)?

The weather is extremely cold (standard).

The weather is extremely freezing (non-standard).

The weather is absolutely freezing (standard).

I was very embarrassed at your misconduct (standard).

I was absolutely mortified at your misconduct (standard).

The living room is very dirty (standard).

The living room is absolutely filthy (standard).

Thompson’s undergarment is extremely neat (standard).

Thompson’s undergarment is absolutely immaculate (standard).

Yesterday, my trousers were extremely wet (standard).

Yesterday, my trousers were extremely soaked through (non-standard).

Yesterday, my trousers were absolutely/completely soaked through (standard).

John’s answers are very correct (non-standard).

John’s answers are absolutely/perfectly/entirely/completely correct (standard).

Other notable examples of non-gradable adjectives are: huge, delighted, astonishing/astonished, essential, petrified, devastated, exasperated/exasperating, hideous, ecstatic, hilarious, scorching and ravenous.

Take note, however, that few adjectives are in between gradable and non-gradable. A typical example is ‘certain’.

I am very certain that Bola will succeed (standard).

I am absolutely certain that Bola will succeed (standard).

Also, contexts may determine the gradability or otherwise of some adjectives.

I am very/extremely mad (angry) at you (standard).

I am absolutely/completely mad (enthusiastic) about basketball (standard).

I am very/extremely mad about basketball (non-standard).

Last but not least, the intensifier, ‘really’, can modify both gradable and non-gradable adjectives.

She was really surprised (gradable) at his reaction (standard).

She was really astounded (non-gradable) at his reaction (standard).

This piece has performed the dual function of widening the readers’ vocabulary, on the one hand, and explaining how adjectives should be appropriately deployed, on the other. The readership should be mindful of this grammatical caution in our daily usage of the English language.

Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB) Department of English, Lagos State University

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