Spanish Adjective Placement: Before or After the Noun
by Vanessa Johnson on Wednesday, October 9, 2019
In our last few academic posts, we studied how to spot the difference between masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives. That probably wasn’t completely new to you, but today we’re going to cover a topic that students are always asking about. It usually doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the classroom.
Now that we know when an adjective is masculine or feminine, where do we put it? There’s no easy answer because in Spanish, adjectives can go before or after the noun.
Some adjectives always go after the noun. These adjectives express:
- Color: ¿Te gusta mi vestido azul? (Do you like my blue dress?)
- Form: Me he comprado una mesa redonda. (I bought myself a round table.)
- State or condition: En esta casa hay muchas cosas rotas. (In this house there are many broken things.)
- Type: Quiero un teléfono móvil. (I want a mobile phone.)
- Origin: Me gusta la música española. (I like Spanish music.)
However, there’s an exception: in poetic language, these types of adjectives can go before the noun.
- Me enamoré de sus rojos labios (I fell in love with his/her red lips).
All other adjectives (the ones that don’t fit into the categories listed above) can be placed before or after the noun, depending on the situation.
- When a Spanish adjective comes after the noun, it is usually being used to distinguish the thing we’re talking about from something else.
- Vamos por el camino grande. Parece más seguro que el camino pequeño.
(Let’s take the big road. It looks safer than the small road.)
- When a Spanish adjective comes before the noun, it’s not being used to distinguish the noun from other nouns. Instead, the adjective is being used to highlight a quality of the noun.
- El pequeño camino que lleva a la cima de la montaña es peligroso.
(The small road that leads to the top of the mountain is dangerous.)
In this case, there is only one road. The adjective pequeño is being used to describe a characteristic of the road. We don’t need to distinguish between a big road and a small road because there is only one.
These adjectives that can be used before the noun usually describe a characteristic whose meaning is relative. That is to say, the characteristic they describe depends on making a comparison. For example, grande-pequeño (big-small), rápido-lento (fast-slow), bonito-feo (pretty-ugly), fuerte-débil (strong-weak), largo-corto (long-short), cercano-lejano (near-far), etc. Something is big or small, pretty or ugly, fast or slow, etc., depending on what we compare it to.
Usually, you will see these adjectives with relative meanings placed before a noun in formal writing. For example, Los testigos dicen que se asustaron porque escucharon una fuerte explosión (The witnesses say they were frightened because they heard a loud explosión).
To learn more, sign up for one of the Spanish courses we offer at our schools.
Thanks to Ignacio Sellés from our school in Alicante for teaching us where to put our Spanish adjectives.