In Order to Form a More Perfect Description: All About Absolute Adjectives

This article has its origins (as so many do) with a real-world example. In this case, I happened upon the website for a family law attorney. I was looking at a page discussing guardianship when this sentence caught my attention:

“What may make the situation even more unique is that at some point during the administration process, the guardianship may no longer be needed.”

Think for a moment about that phrase, “more unique.” Something unique is one-of-a-kind, right? So what happens when something is even more unique? How much more exclusive can it be?

And an even more pressing question: is some variation of this error even now on your business or professional website? Are you being mocked by strangers right now?

I guess it’s time to review adjectives again…

The Incomparable Adjective

As you will recall, adjectives are words that apply to nouns to add descriptive depth. Words such as suspicious, diamond-encrusted, cool, peppery, financial, and nervous are all adjectives.

A distinctive feature of adjectives is the degree of comparison. The basic meaning of any adjective is termed the positive degree; the examples we just looked at—suspicious, cool, and the others—are all positive-degree adjectives.

The next level up is the comparative degree, which is usually formed either by adding the suffix –ER to the base word or by placing the word “more” before the base adjective. Comparative adjectives are used to identify which one of two things has the purer or more intense quality of the adjective. Some examples of comparative adjectives would be cooler, purer, more intense, more suspicious, crazier, and so many others.

The summit is the superlative degree, which identifies the one thing of many that has the quality of the adjective. These are formed in most cases by adding the suffix –EST to the positive adjective or by placing the word “most” before the base word. Examples: shiniest, most repetitious, hairiest, most effective, deepest, nastiest, or most welcome.

While this summary covers the majority of adjectives you will ever encounter, you should know that there are a few adjectives which refuse to play the comparison game. In effect, they have only a positive degree, because trying to create comparative or superlative versions defies the meaning of the adjective. There’s no official classification system for these words, but it’s helpful to sort them into three distinct collections anyway:

Absolute Adjectives

Some adjectives represent concepts that are so final and ultimate that they cannot be compared. We call these absolute adjectives. We already encountered one—unique—at the start of this essay. Other absolute adjectives include adequate, complete, empty, entire, final, free, full, ideal, perfect, universal, ultimate, and whole. It should be obvious that, for instance, if something is free, there is no conceptual space where something else could be “more free” or “most free.”

Non-gradable Adjectives

The concept behind comparison of adjectives is that adjectives describe qualities that things might have to a greater or lesser degree. But not all adjectives work that way. Some of them describe qualities that are yes-or-no properties: toggle switches, rather than volume controls. We call these non-gradable adjectives. They cannot have comparative or superlative forms.

Consider the adjective imaginary. Sure, we can say, “Humpty Dumpty is imaginary” or “Paul Bunyan is imaginary.” But is there any way that the sentence, “Humpty Dumpty is more imaginary than Paul Bunyan” makes sense? The property of being imaginary isn’t an absolute in the same way that the word “unique” is absolute, but it’s just as much an all-or-nothing deal that doesn’t allow degrees. Imaginary is a non-gradable adjective.

There are lots of non-gradable adjectives. Here are just a few: American, circular, dead, essential, fatal, fictional, indoor, main, married, optional, pregnant, round, singular, and square. There are many, many others. Before using a comparative or superlative version of an adjective, you should take a moment to consider whether the word is being used in a non-gradable sense.

Negative Adjectives

Many of the adjectives that describe negative qualities—or the absence of certain characteristics—also function as absolute or non-gradable adjectives. As such, they cannot take comparative or superlative degrees. Consider, for example, the word inert. A thing which is inert does not react, and it’s silly to suggest that there could be further levels of nonreactiveness. “More inert”? I think not.

Many of the negative adjectives have prefixes (such as in-, un-, or non-) that denote the sense of “not.” A word list of these adjectives would include unspeakable, inexplicable, invisible, unobtainable, invalid, unfettered, immune, inevitable, and impossible. However, not every adjective starting with a negative prefix is immune to being compared. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Sam is the most irresponsible child I know,” or “Cindy’s fruitcake is even more unpleasant this year than last year.”

Dare to Compare!

If our recent examples have taught us one thing, it’s this: it has now become essential that your staff website writer and your online content proofreader work together to make sure adjectives are being used properly. So, if you are a business professional, medical clinic director, or law firm manager, the next question you have to be asking yourself is this: Is your current team up to the task?

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