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I've seen combinations like "dead serious", "dead gorgeous" and...

Is it possible to have "dead" before any other adjective(s)? Such as dead difficult or dead stupid? If not, how can one know which combinations are allowed?

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  • Absolute, complete, entire, thorough, downright. Also dead-earnest in adj. use. OED. I had always assumed that it was a shortening of 'deadly' - in deadly earnest etc. In colloquial use when I grew up (in Glasgow in the 1960s) we used 'dead' in every context. 'He's dead stupid. She's dead pretty. You're dead rich.'
    – Nigel J
    May 16, 2018 at 14:43
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    I'm dead sure there are others. May 16, 2018 at 17:11
  • "She was dead lively doesn't sound so great." Worse may be dead alive. But a teenager might say either. In short, it is the acceptability of (native) speakers that determines whether such combinations are allowed. @JJJ has suggested that dead doesn't work well before "quantifying adjectives," although dead minimum sounds fine to me. It really is in the ear of the hearer. May 16, 2018 at 18:39
  • Possible duplicate of How do you use the phrase "as ... as can be"?. You can rarely use intensification with classifying, absolute and extreme adjectives (unless you're being tongue-in-cheek or whimsical). *very nuclear / *very on / *very topmost. 'Dead' also has the complication that it's usually in an informal register. May 16, 2018 at 19:22
  • There are also other discussions about adjectives (such as 'unique') having both absolute and gradable polysemes (senses). Perhaps the most detailed is at Are the rules regarding 'absolute-modifiers' too absolute?. May 16, 2018 at 19:40

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I think it's hard to find a rule on which combinations are grammatical or idiomatic and which aren't. One example which to me seems awkward, albeit a bit of a silly example, is dead itself. The reason it's awkward, I think, is that dead itself is quite final (when talking about humans or animals), i.e. you cannot be a little bit dead, so saying something is completely or very dead doesn't make much sense.

Of course it could be used when the second dead means something else*. For example a body part that feels awkward due to sitting with crossed legs for a long time.

When your doctor tells you your leg is dead*, you might ask them if it will be over in an hour. If they're into dark humour, they might say it's dead-dead, that is, you're leg starved off (and it may need to be amputated).

*dead meaning:

If a part of your body is dead, you cannot feel it

Dead as an adverb

Yes, dead can be used before an adjective, it then says something about the adjective so the word dead is called an adverb. Note Cambridge Dictionary's entry for dead (2 meanings as an adverb):

complete(ly), very

Example sentences (from the same source):

I'm dead hungry.

"How was the film?" "It was dead good."

The exam was dead easy.

Attribution: Definition of “dead” from the Cambridge Business English Dictionary © Cambridge University Press

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    Can we use "dead" with any adjective? Are there exceptions?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 16, 2018 at 14:22
  • @Mari-LouA fair question. For now, consider this a partial answer (mainly addressing the question in the title). Finding exceptions may be easy (although, how do you prove that a certain combination is not allowed?). Well, I can think of one, I'll add that
    – JJJ
    May 16, 2018 at 14:52
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    @Mari-LouA probably dead: dead dead!
    – lbf
    May 16, 2018 at 14:52
  • @lbf yes, although the second dead also adds meaning, consider this comment on SO by Željko Filipin (emphasis is mine): Chromewatir is dead-dead, I do not think you can even install it any more.
    – JJJ
    May 16, 2018 at 14:59
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    @1006a good example, I've actually thought of some more examples which don't sound very well: dead big, dead very, dead minor, dead minimum, dead thousandth. It seems dead doesn't work well with quantifying adjectives.
    – JJJ
    May 16, 2018 at 17:02

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