When I hear waterproof, I think "water definitely can't get in." To me, that's an adjective that implies totality (for my ignorance of a better term).

When I hear water-resistant, I think "water won't get in easily, but it's definitely not waterproof." To me, that phrase excludes totality.

Are there terms for these different types of adjectives that imply or exclude totality?

And is there a term for adjectives that do neither of these things and describe, I guess, the full range of a quality?

  • 1
    Water-resistant shouldn't exclude water-proof. The set of "Water-proof" things is a sub-set of the "Water-resistant" things in the universe; water-resistant covers a range beginning at the smallest degree of resistance to water, and reaching all the way to 100% resistance, which is equal to water-proof. – Conrado Apr 30 '20 at 13:49
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    @Conrado I thought about that... but my intuition is that "water-resistant" is used in contrast to "water-proof". For example, when buying hiking boots I knew I wanted "water-proof" because boots marketed as "water-resistant" definitely weren't waterproof - otherwise the seller would have marked them as such. So in a vacuum, does water-resistant include water-proof? Maybe. But not in general usage, or at least in this one example. – Michael Crenshaw Apr 30 '20 at 13:52

Adjective Gradability

Adjectives describe qualities (characteristics) of nouns. Some qualities can vary in intensity or "grade", for example:

rather hot, hot, very hot; hot, hotter, the hottest The adjective hot is gradable.

Other qualities cannot vary in intensity or grade because they are:

  • extremes (for example: freezing)
  • absolutes (for example: dead)
  • classifying (for example: nuclear)

The adjectives freezing, dead and nuclear are non-gradable.

(From EnglishClub)

'Waterproof' is probably best seen as at the (idealised?) end of a continuum of water resistance, so I'd probably go with 'extreme' here (although 'absolute' is arguably true also.)

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    +1 "idealised"-- ideally, then, absolutes are the adjectives indicating one end or the other of the continuum referred to by a gradeable adjective? – Conrado Apr 30 '20 at 13:58
  • Yep, I can see how waterproof, idealized, is an absolute but is probably actually just an extreme. The example of dead helps bring that into perspective. – Michael Crenshaw Apr 30 '20 at 14:00
  • EnglishClub's example of an absolute-type adjective, 'dead', is meant to show an either - or situation. Even here, there are grey areas, hinging on definitions of death. Perhaps 'unique' in its original sense is a less problematic example. // Their example of an extreme adjective is arguably equally 'either - or', but you can get as close as physically possible to 'freezing': there's a continuous temperature scale. (Of course, the word is often used loosely, too.) So, as you say, { ... moderately cold ... quite cold ... cold ... very cold ... nearly freezing ... v close to freezing ... l>} – Edwin Ashworth Apr 30 '20 at 14:12
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    'Unique' in its traditional / default 'only one example' sense is on a scale of sorts (100 left ... 50 left ... 10 ... 5 4 3 2 ...it's unique.), but not a continuous scale. Classifying adjectives are far easier to distinguish: chemical, Roman .... They can merge with attributive nouns. Is 'steel' in 'a steel bridge' an adjective or noun? (The jury was out, last I heard.) [Comments following on from Conrado's] – Edwin Ashworth Apr 30 '20 at 14:19
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    Great clarifications. I just wanted to point out this paper, which argues that some gradable adjectives are "absolute gradables", marking "a maximal [or, non-zero] degree of the measured concept." Waterproof seems to fit the "maximal" description, and water-resistant seems to fit the "non-zero" description. – Michael Crenshaw Apr 30 '20 at 21:42

This is taken into account in a grammatical classification of adjectives: ref.; the two classes describing the characteritics in question are the absolute adjectives (waterproof) and the gradable adjectives (water-resistant). This means that you might be able to say "very water-resistant" but not "very waterproof". In fact, you can say both: ref. 1, ref. 2.

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