They earned a large sum of money that day.

The fact that the sum of money is large depends upon the experience of the person that earned it that day. For someone who usually earns $10/day that large sum of money could be $40. For another, a days earnings might not be considered large until it's $400.


That happened really fast! The actual speed of what is being described as fast is not going to be the same depending on the realm that is being dealt with. For example, the scales for fast are not the same for chemistry as they are for the development life cycle of automobiles.

Other examples of these kinds of words:

  • Loud
  • Many
  • Complicated
  • Bright
  • Hard

I have read some definitions on 'Deixis' but from what I've read it doesn't seem to encompass the concept I'm referring to but I could be wrong. I'm thinking 'Relative' is also close but it doesn't feel like it is specific enough to this concept.

  • I think relative is the word I'd use. Also, maybe something like proportionate – Christy Dec 21 '16 at 8:48

This may not be quite what you had in mind, but the words you mention are gradable adjectives.

Most adjectives are gradable in that they can apply in differing degrees e.g. clever, tall, efficient, simple, cold, hot etc are all gradable.

However a few are not gradable e.g. correct, unique, absolute, solvent, edible, proportionate, single, double etc.

Now in order to be in the category that you describe, an adjective has to be gradable. And my sense is that any gradable adjective could have that property. e.g. what is clever for a four-year-old, may not be clever if you or I did the same thing.

  • Thanks! I've never previously heard of "gradable" adjectives. Good explanation. – TrevorD Dec 21 '16 at 12:13
  • YES!!!! Gradable adjectives appears to be what I was looking for. Thank you! – Mike Grace Dec 21 '16 at 15:18
  • @TrevorD There is often an argument about unique. When I was at school (circa 1957) I was told that something could not be more or less unique - it was either unique or it wasn't. However nowadays I hear people saying things like more/less unique, almost unique etc. – WS2 Dec 21 '16 at 17:54
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    @WS2 I certainly agree that people use 'unique' that way - and I always consider it to be misuse or abuse! I see that Oxford Dictionary has a Usage note discussing this "less precise" usage. – TrevorD Dec 23 '16 at 20:21
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    @TrevorD Yes, in the actual OED unique splits into the non-modifiable (sense 3a) and the modifiable (sense 3b). Whilst the non-modifiable has examples dating from roughly 1600, the modifiable form does not begin to appear until roughly 1740. – WS2 Dec 24 '16 at 0:08

To differing degrees, the meaning of many words is subjective, non-constant and context-dependent. When a person says "Six thousand people were affected", most hearers would assume this to be an approximation.

A correct word to use for such terms is ill-defined.

ODO gives the meaning as:

Not having a clear description or limits; vague.

which is purely descriptive of the language itself. And a lot of English used is non-precisionist; this is often quite acceptable or even preferable.

However, WordNet 3.0, Farlex adds an element of poor communication skills:

Adj. 1. ill-defined - poorly stated or described; "he confuses the reader with ill-defined terms and concepts"

So ill-defined seems autological.


The issue here really boils down to qualitative as opposed to quantitative gradability, and the different assessments available when qualitative judgments are being made. There are situations where less subjectiveness is involved: 'A large molecule' obviously uses a notional 'large on the molecular level' scale reference.

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