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A Place for Every Adjective, and Every Adjective in its Place

Adjectives can be hard to place in Spanish. Here are a few tips to guide your arrangements.

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Most adjectives in Spanish go after the noun which they qualify or modify, although there are many exceptions, and the language gives its students plenty of flexibility without necessarily violating some especially-thorny grammatical point.

Some adjectives go before the noun, others can go before or after, and still others change their meaning depending on whether they precede or follow the noun.

One more or less reliable rule-of-thumb is that adjectives which differentiate an object from others of its kind – el coche azul (the blue car), la mesa redonda (the round table) – are placed after the noun; while those that underscore the quality of a thing precede the noun – una gran idea (a great idea), un perfecto caballero (a perfect gentleman), qué lindos niños  (what lovely children).

Some examples of adjectives that precede the noun are those of quantity or number. Los primeros días del mes (the first days of the month), el cuarto poder (the fourth estate).

Adjectives of color, shape, and status almost always go after the noun, although even here there is poetic license. Others can go quite comfortably before or after – La próxima semana (next week) or la semana próxima are equally acceptable. Likewise, una ola enorme (a giant wave) or una enorme ola are both correct.

There are also adjectives that have different meanings depending whether they are applied before or after the noun they modify:

Es la única lámpara que tengo (It’s the only lamp I have); Esa lámpara es única (That lamp is unique);

Él es un perfecto tonto (He is an unmitigated fool); Fue un día perfecto (It was a perfect day).

En la tienda venden puro jugo (In the shop they only sell juice); En la tienda venden jugo puro (In the shop they sell pure [unadulterated] juice).

Set expressions such as bellas artes (fine arts) have the adjective first. Buenas noches (less common, but also used, is buena noche) is good night, while Noche Buena means Christmas Eve.

In some cases, choosing whether to put the adjective before or after the noun can depend on whether you want to impress upon the listener the thing itself or the quality of it. Un tremendo ruido (a tremendous noise) suggests noise is objectionable, while un ruido tremendo stresses how loud it was.  This is somewhat subjective, although writers — and especially poets — will move the order around for effect.

When several adjectives are applied, they can be grouped before, after, or on either side of the noun, usually following the same rules and patterns as single adjectives, although it’s unusual to string several together as you would in English without “y” in-between: It was a cold windy day – Fue un día frío y ventoso; Beautiful red leaves – Hermosas hojas rojas; The last gray autumn days – Los últimos días grises de otoño.

As examples here indicate, adjectives follow the same endings rules as nouns for masculine and feminine, singular and plural. One irregularity: Mi tercer aniversario – My third anniversary; but Rey Ricardo Tercero de Inglaterra – King Richard the Third of England. El primer capítulo – The first chapter; but el capítulo primero.

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3 Comments

  1. Al Borunda says

    This really helps. Gracias!

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