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We generally use modifiers such as "so" and "very" for gradable/normal adjectives (water can be quite/so/very HOT, but not quite/so/very BOILING (an ungradable/extreme adjective). Yet would you say the following sentences--which, I'd say, are quite commonplace in colloquial speech--are grammatically incorrect?

  1. You told the teacher I'd been cheating? You're SO dead! ("Dead", obviously, is ungradable.)

  2. Simon Cowell was seen with his VERY pregnant girlfriend. (A woman is either pregnant or not--it can't be graded.)

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Seems a distinction between rhetorical use and grammatical use - the former would include tropes such as exaggeration and irony. The latter doesn't really allow for these. I'd be interested to see what others have to say - good question. –  Leon Conrad Feb 9 at 10:30
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I think it could be argued that 'pregnant' is gradable. A woman who has recently conceived does not appear any differently to normal. Yet she is 'pregnant'. One who is nine-months pregnant is obviously so. To say a woman is 'very pregnant' is perhaps a modern way of saying she is 'great with child'. So I think we need some different examples, aside from 'so dead'. I think this question inevitably turns on individual cases, some may be rhetorically accetable others simply ridiculous. –  WS2 Feb 9 at 10:38
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How about "quite right" and "very wrong" (aren't these non-gradable?)? I've heard people so "You're so fired!" too. –  Louel Feb 9 at 10:43
    
@WS2: Whether pregnancy itself is gradable, the state of being "visibly pregnant" or "obviously pregnant" certainly is. While someone who is "visibly pregnant" may not be "obviously pregnant", someone who is "very visibly pregnant" is also apt to be "very obviously pregnant". Thus, the adverb modified by "very" (i.e. "visibly" or "obviously") becomes redundant. –  supercat Feb 9 at 17:44
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@WS2: The phrase "very pregnant" means, essentially, "sufficiently advanced in pregnancy that the term 'very' could be applied to so many adverbs associated with pregnancy that it's not necessary to specify one". Grammatically, the term "very" doesn't modify "pregnant" so much as it modifies the other implied-but-unstated adverbs. –  supercat Feb 9 at 19:00
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6 Answers

Sometimes words you may consider not gradable are used as gradable.

"Very pregnant" means last months of pregnancy, belly extremely bulged, movement impaired - a girl within first trimester can work at most jobs just fine. One who is very pregnant needs a lot of help.

When you simmer or boil your pasta, it's just boiling. If the water splashes all over the stove, or the cover is jumping on the pot, it's very boiling and you should reduce heat to let it simmer.

When you broke your mother's vase, she isn't going to commit a murder. Still, you're "so dead!" - meaning you're in a lot of trouble. In this case "dead" is used as hyperbole, synonymous to "in trouble" and that, in order is perfectly gradable.

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How about 'the shop looks closed, very closed'. It seems a good enough device to me - a way of simply communicating that there is abundant evidence that the place is closed e.g. shutters up etc. –  WS2 Feb 9 at 11:20
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@WS2: Cobwebs on the shutters, door welded shut, and a foreclosure note pasted on the door. The shop is very closed. –  SF. Feb 9 at 17:13
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@Louel: "You're so fired" could be correctly uttered by someone without the authority to actually fire someone. This would imply that the ODDS of you being fired, for whatever just transpired or became known, is high. –  MrWonderful Feb 9 at 18:13
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But are we saying 'very closed' in sincerity, as though it is a validly gradable adjective? Or are we using it with a knowing sense of irony? You can say anything provided it is with 'kspmi', indeed you can dress however you wish, and wear running shorts at a posh dinner party, provided you do it with kspmi (knowing sense of post-modernist irony). So are we saying 'very closed' with kspmi, or without? –  WS2 Feb 9 at 18:13
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@SF But isn't the person saying it doing so with a knowing sense that it is not strictly grammatical, and hence witty. –  WS2 Feb 9 at 20:59
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It depends on if you define grammatical as conforming to the rules of grammar or regarded as correct and acceptable by native speakers of the language.

I believe everybody has heard those phrases, and probably they have raised the hackles of some. However, I think they are acceptable on the basis of the second definition of grammatical.

We understand that in most instances, so dead is a figure of speech. As such, as an idiom, it is grammatical, meaning in deep trouble, or worse, a threat:

Arrested: Hope Williams, 14, left, allegedly wrote 'he is so dead' about a classmate she believed was a snitch.

The same applies to very pregnant as an idiom.

Thirty-five-and-a-half months pregnant is very pregnant indeed. (correct)
The irony as regards the world's demise is very pregnant indeed. (correct)
So at 4 weeks one is very pregnant indeed. (I would say this was not idiomatic and therefore a rather silly use of very pregnant.)

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As I have said in my comment to SF, you can say anything provided it is with 'a knowing sense of irony'. –  WS2 Feb 9 at 18:17
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Both can be defended.

In the first, so is used for emphasis, and, in any case, dead isn’t being used literally.

In the second, very is also used for emphasis. The OED’s third definition of very is:

In emphatic use, denoting that the person or thing may be so named in the fullest sense of the term, or possesses all the essential qualities of the thing specified.

It means that her pregnancy was apparent, as opposed to that of a woman who had only recently become pregnant.

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To add something that the other answers haven't yet mentioned, I believe the pregnant example doesn't really mean that she is "very pregnant" but rather "very visibly pregnant" and the "visibly" has been omitted and is implied from context rather than explicitly stated.

The writers are quite clearly referencing the fact that she looks very large, not the length of her pregnancy - and so it's not referring to an ungradable adjective, because the "very" goes with the adverb "visibly".

As other answers have touched upon, "so" is used colloquially to mean "really" or "definitely", so your other example is not actually grading the adjective either, but rather grading the degree of certainty with the "diagnosis" of being dead/fired/etc.

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I can't judge whether "very pregnant" is used by some people in spoken language. But if you hear it it shows that people not always speak according to grammar rules. In any case it would sound silly in written language.

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Read this news article from the Daily Mail. Should we tell the writer he's SO fired? :-D dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541466/… –  Louel Feb 9 at 11:00
    
A lot to read. It would be clearer to give the expression you refer to here. –  rogermue Feb 9 at 11:04
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For me this written example in a newspaper seems to indicate "spoken language". And what you find in newspapers is not always the best of language. –  rogermue Feb 9 at 11:12
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I'd say it isn't poor language, and neither does it sound silly. It's just informal--and this usage is perfectly acceptable in this register. –  Louel Feb 9 at 11:20
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@Louel why are you advertising DM twitter acc :) –  user13107 Feb 10 at 8:26
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The notion that a particular adjective is gradable is, at best, purely a cultural one, and probably intrinsically unstable. For example, the concept of dead vs alive is not actually a strict binary - often times people are medically dead until they are resuscitated, but are they actually dead? What about people who are in a coma and only still alive because of pacemakers and respirators? Versus, say, someone that has been reduced to a skeleton. There's clearly a difference in degree among these examples.

As with pregnancy. Consider the example of an ovum that is fertilized but not yet implanted, or a woman whose pregnancy is terminating during a very intense period, or a zygote that is implanted but not a viable embryo. Is their pregnancy really undifferentiable from a woman about to go into labor?

Ungradable adjectives were invented by some Anselmian grammarians who decided that, because they could conceive adjectival ungradability, the category must exist and therefore decided to start adding words to it. It has no intrinsic grammatical worth or purpose and can safely be jettisoned.

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I take the point in regards pregnant in his example not be in stage of process (though I can imagine someone doing so) but rather in degree of visibility. –  virmaior Feb 10 at 0:54
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