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Publication Date

Spring 2013

Degree Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Linguistics and Language Development


Soteria Svorou


Adjectives, Corpus Linguistics, Gradability

Subject Areas



This study explored the phenomenon of grading non-gradable adjectives from semantic and historical perspectives by examining the history of unique. The apparent clash that arises between unique's generally accepted definition of "one of a kind" and its actual usage with adverbs like somewhat and very is polysemy in which unique has two definitions - the non-gradable "one of a kind" and the gradable "uncommon." Using three corpora of American English for a total of almost one billion words spanning two centuries, I found that grading unique has become less frequent over the past hundred years. Contrary to prescriptivist assumptions, the non-gradable sense of unique is gaining popularity, not losing it. Grading patterns compared among six additional adjectives - three gradable and three non-gradable - revealed that grading adverbs collocate more with gradable adjectives than with non-gradable ones, while epistemic adverbs collocate more with non-gradable adjectives than with gradable ones. Gradability was also shown to be gradable, i.e., some adjectives are more gradable than others, and each adjective has its own story.