Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Technical stuff – part 11: adjectives (ungradable)

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Adjectives are describing words.

Most adjectives can show a difference in degree. For example, ‘hot’, ‘hotter’ and ‘hottest’.

However, some adjectives cannot show this difference in degree. For example, you can be ‘dead’, but you can’t be ‘deader’/’more dead’ or ‘deadest’/’most dead’.

Adjectives that cannot show a difference in degree are called  ‘non-gradable’ or ‘ungradable’. Other examples include:

Complete

Unique

Equal

Perfect

However (there’s always a however), although some strict grammarians say that because ‘unique’, for example, is an ungradable adjective, it is always a punishable offence to use phrases such as ‘very unique’ or ‘really unique’. Well,  that isn’t quite so: ‘unique’ has a secondary meaning of  ‘remarkable or unusual’ and so it is OK to use such phrases, depending on the context.

So, I think we can relax and sometimes cut ourselves a little grammatical slack on the ungradable adjectives front.

Update: January 2013

The following is from Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s errors and ommissions column:

There are no degrees of infallibility

This is from a business story published on Wednesday: “That’s only its second ever annual loss since launch in 1997. While that’s an impressive record, it will raise questions among investors about whether Mr Harding’s venture is as infallible as it had previously seemed.”

Two things to note. “Ever” is redundant, as it often is. A second ever annual loss is no worse than a second annual loss – and any rhetorical reinforcement the point might need is supplied by “only”. “Questions about whether Mr Harding’s venture is as infallible as it had seemed” is nonsensical. There are no degrees of infallibility; the venture is either infallible or it is not. And it is silly to talk of “questions” about whether it is infallible. Obviously something is happening that is less than ideal, so it isn’t infallible; there’s no question about it. In this contest, “infallible” is the wrong word.

Here’s Oxford Dictionaries on ‘infallible’.

More on nouns, verbs and adjectives

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6 Responses

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  1. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mention your ‘secondary meaning’ and I think that qualification of ‘unique’ may still be regarded as crass. When Kenneth Grahame wrote, ” ‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, is an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence, very unique.’, ” he was making a comment about Toad, not suggesting that this usage is correct.

    Dai

    28/02/2010 at 3:30 pm

    • Hello, Dai

      I’m just relying on my trusty Oxford Dictionary of English, which says:

      “Words like unique have a core sense but they often also have a secondary, less precise sense: in this case (i.e. unique), the meaning ‘very remarkable or unusual’, as in really unique opportunity. In its secondary sense, unique does not relate to an absolute concept, and so the use of submodifying adverbs is grammatically acceptable.”

      Deborah

      28/02/2010 at 3:38 pm

    • The much-lauded (by us) US Constitution talks of forming “a more perfect Union.”

      “Unique” is a pretty easy test-case: most grammarians would say it’s lax, if not slovenly, to qualify it. But what about “utterly singular” (another uncomparable adj.)? Or “entirely stationary”? Even “least/most favorite”? They may technically be wrong, but you still hear or see them all the time. I think we naturally add intensifiers and qualifiers to add stress or subtlety.

      Michael Farrell

      28/02/2010 at 3:51 pm

      • Thanks, Michael — “a more perfect union” really works, I think. Sometimes, the strict application of grammatical rules can place limitations on a writer’s power of expression.

        Deborah

        28/02/2010 at 4:02 pm

  2. All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. (Cited in Fowler’s.)

    Michael Farrell

    06/03/2010 at 4:55 am

    • …and from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, of course. That’s a really interesting and thought provoking example of a qualified ungradable adjective, used by Orwell to succinctly highlight the corruption of communist ideals. It also illustrates in microcosm his huge concern that: “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

      Here’s a link to Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language.

      Deborah

      06/03/2010 at 4:42 pm


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