Position of adjectives in Spanish


THERE ARE so many more things to the Spanish language than verbs.

Have you ever puzzled about the position of adjectives? I’m sure it must have kept you awake for at least five minutes some night or other. This is what happens – you start of by assuming that adjectives go in front of nouns and are reassured in this assumption by the fact that the barman always understands you when you say “grande cerveza”. Then you learn that that was wrong and that the barman was just humouring you. You should have been saying “cerveza grande” all along because in Spanish adjectives go after the things they describe – car fast, dress blue etc.

Well, all of that is fine until you start paying closer attention to the Spanish that you see and hear around you and discover that in fact, sometimes, adjectives go in front of nouns, but it’s extremely difficult to work out why. So, here are some guidelines which might be of assistance.

Adjectives follow nouns when they describe it and differente it from other nouns. For examples “el vestido azul” (the blue dress) differentiates it from “el vestido verde” and “el vestido amarillo”. However, the adjective goes in front of the nouns when it describes some inherent quality in the noun, rather than differentiating it from other nouns of a similar ilk. This is more difficult to explain than to show examples, I feel, so here we go:

La blanca nieve (the white snow); la roja sangre (the red blood); las altas montañas (the high mountains); la mejor idea (the best idea); un buen amigo (a good friend); el grave error (the serious mistake). In all of these examples the adjectives intensify and enhance the nouns. I know you could argue that there are low mountains, bad ideas or not so serious mistakes, but the idea behind these expressions is not to differentiate the nouns from others, but to enhance their inherent qualities.

There are other kinds of adjectives that always go in front of nouns, such as the words for this, that, my, and another: este hombre; esa mujer, mi amigo, otro día. When there are two adjectives, we can link them with “y” or we can surround the noun with the less important adjective first. “El coche caro y rápido” “Los jugadores altos y fuertes” “La famosa autora inglesa” “Las viejas casas coloniales”. As you can probably imagine, sometimes the judgment about what is more important is a subjective one.

Finally, sometimes the position of the adjectives changes the meaning – before the noun it is more figurative, and after the noun it is more literal. For example: Un gran hombre (a great man) – Un hombre grande (a big man); el nuevo coche (the new car – replacement) – el coche nuevo (the “brand” new car); mi único amigo (my only friend) – mi amigo único (unique); pobre gente (poor people – to be pitied) -gente pobre (people with no money).

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