Really, Truly Helpful: Understanding Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

A question from a learner challenged me to formulate an explanation I hadn’t given before. I was asked to explain gradable and non-gradable adjectives. Sometimes students surprise me with their knowledge of terminology. Truthfully, I’ve never taught a lesson online or offline on this specific topic. Why?

I think  the concept of gradable and non-gradable adjectives is commonly broken down and spread out over time. For example, we first teach many descriptive adjectives to beginners, from appearance to size. As students move from high beginner to low intermediate, they learn comparative and superlative forms. It may not be spelled out directly, but learners pick up on the fact that only those adjectives that describe people and things are gradable. One car might be cheaper than another, but it certainly can’t be more American than another…unless you start arguing about parts, workers, factory locations and the like. Such an argument would be reserved for an advanced class.

And so the gradual mastery of adjectives continues. Some classifying adjectives begin to work their way into our lessons when intermediate students can more easily distinguish word forms, like Japan and Japanese or society and social. It’s at this point when students have more vocabulary that we can teach the order of adjectives. That topic is especially useful once upper level learners gain command of noun modifiers.

I think upper level students can benefit from seeing a distinction between gradable and non-gradable adjectives when they learn more advanced adverbs of degree. The many amplifiers and downtoners build up vocabulary. At this level, students already know how adverbs of degree function. They use very and and really all the time. But now they have the desire to write and say more sophisticated sentences, so they will appreciate the chance to learn slightly, fairly, somewhat, and extremely.

I think a helpful lesson on gradable and non-gradable adjectives would be one that prompted students to see the difference between descriptive and classifying adjectives and encouraged practice with adverbs of degree. If you’d like to expose your learners to this topic, please consider my Really, Truly Helpful_handout.

There’s certainly more to share, like the fact that some adjectives are descriptive in nature, but nevertheless non-gradable, such as gigantic. And why is someone either alive or dead, but we can use adverbs of degree to say, “I feel so alive, more alive than ever!” Perhaps I’ll devise a second handout to address those points. As mentioned, I think adjectives as a topic must be mastered in degrees.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Arun Goyal says:

    Lovely explanation of graded adjectives. Well done. Crisp and tasty.

    1. Thank you for checking it out, Arun. Kind regards!

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