Gradable & Non-Gradable Adjectives: When Can We Use ‘Very’?

When can we add modifiers like ‘very’, ‘extremely’, and ‘a little bit’ to adjectives? It depends on whether the adjective is non-gradable or gradable. 

(1) Non-gradable Adjectives

Do not use modifiers with non-gradable adjectives.

An adjective is non-gradable if it:

(a) is binary (0 or 1). For example, dead and man-made are binary. You cannot be a little bit dead, nor can a car be very man-made. You’re either dead, or you’re not. The car was either man-made, or it wasn’t. There is no in between.

Or

(b) contains ‘very’ within its meaning, e.g. Freezing means very cold; Delighted means very happy; Exhausted means very tired. If you use ‘very’ before these words, it is equivalent to saying, “I’m very very happy,” which is unnecessary repetition. Likewise, “She’s a little bit very cold” doesn’t make sense.

  • The game was very excellent.        The game was excellent.
  • I am quite married.                            I am married.
  • My dog is very starving.                   My dog is starving.      or      My dog is very hungry.
  • Busan was a little bit boiling.           Busan was boiling.      or      Busan was very hot.

(2) Gradable Adjectives

All other adjectives are gradable and can be modified.

  • She is sad.         or            She is really sad.               or      She is not very sad.
  • John is tall.        or            John is unbelievably tall.  or      John is pretty tall.

This guide will help you remember:

Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

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