Absolutely Perfect: Understanding More about Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

I’ve been watching clips from Britain’s Got Talent, and I’m always amused to hear Simon Cowell’s comments. When he’s not impressed, he’s brutally frank. And when someone performs with truly admirable talent, he doesn’t hold back in his praise. Earning words like “absolutely perfect” from the likes of Mr. Cowell makes most performers cry for joy.

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives are all around us. I’ve become very attuned to them in real-life contexts ever since I was asked to explain the concept. (See previous post.) I especially like paying attention to which adverbs speakers use to modify their adjectives. Besides TV personalities, I’ve listened to voices in the media. Journalist and editor W. James Antle III recently questioned the president’s request for new war powers: “You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Can you just be a little bit at war?” (I mean to provoke no political responses, please. It’s just an example I came across in my recently mailed copy of The Week.)

Whether we agree with Mr. Antle’s politics or not, we can acknowledge his grammar. When we use classifying adjectives, we normally don’t express them in degrees. Author Charlaine Harris would agree. She titled one of her vampire novels Definitely Dead.  Mr. Cowell’s infrequent words of praise are to be snatched as they come and used as examples. He reminds us that there are a limited number of adverbs we can use to modify non-gradable adjectives.

You might have a fun warm-up asking students to describe people or things that are:

  • utterly perfect
  • absolutely horrible
  • totally uncool
  • so alive (full of life)
  • completely harmless
  • completely hopeless
  • absolutely amazing
  • almost impossible
  • truly freezing
  • totally gorgeous

For a more in-depth study of adjectives that express an extreme or an absolute, please see my Absolutely Perfect_handout.

 

Source:

Antle, W. James., III. (2016, February 16). What kind of war does the AUMF authorize? The American Conservative. Retrieved from http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/what-kind-of-war-does-the-aumf-authorize/

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Miriam Madhav says:

    Many thanks, Jennifer, for a very interesting read! Really like the fact that you use examples a lot of young people can relate to – and that’s a key takeaway for a trainer. This is the first time I’m reading your work – and I’m looking forward to more! Thanks once again!

    1. Thank you for visiting, Miriam. Happy teaching!

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