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School of Modern Languages & Cultures
Department of Hispanic Studies

 

Position of adjectives in Spanish

 

1. English/Spanish differences

An adjective is a word that describes or classifies a noun. It may appear alongside the noun ('my friend, deep water') or after a copulative verb ('the water is deep'). In Spanish, most adjectives can also be used with an article (la pequeña, lo más importante) to stand for the combined idea of noun and adjective (the small one, the most important thing).
When an adjective appears alongside a noun in English, the required order is: adjective + noun (the big hat, the green hat, the first hat, your hat). Spanish, however, allows adjectives to come either before or after the noun.

2. Spanish: adjetivos determinativos

Certain types of adjective in Spanish which do a job of identifying what is referred to or specifying quantity or volume (rather than describing a noun) usually precede the noun.  These include demonstrative (este, aquel), possessive (mi, tu), numeral (tres, tercero), indefinite (alguno, ninguno), relative (cuyo) and interrogative (qué) adjectives. Some can be used on their own as pronouns, and some can occasionally appear after the noun.
 

Adjective

Pronoun

Alternative adjective position

Toma esa copa

No ésa sino aquélla

El chico aquel me tiene desesperada

Es un imbécil tu amigo

 

Ese amigo tuyo es un imbécil

Llegaron dieciséis enanos

Dieciséis son muchos

 

Leamos el primer capítulo

Sí, el primero

Leamos el capítulo primero

¿Ves alguna estrella?

Yo no veo ninguna

No veo estrella alguna

No hay mucho hielo

A mí me parece muy poco

 

No comas tanta carne

 

 

Tal arrogancia nos ofende

 

 

Ha venido un chico cuyo padre es amigo del director

 

 

¿Qué día prefieren?

¿Qué prefieren?
¿Cuál prefieren?

 

3. Spanish: adjetivos calificativos

Other adjectives describe a noun, attributing a quality to it. They are normally placed after the noun they describe.
 

la enseñanza secundaria

un bicho peligroso

camareros italianos

la bandera roja

However, Spanish allows a degree of flexibility in the placing of adjectives, so that they sometimes precede the noun.  The main principle governing this choice is to do with differentiation:

After the noun: differentiating

Before the noun: unsurprising epithet

Se dará el premio a un escritor famoso (whoever gets it will be a famous writer rather than an unknown one)

Se dará el premio a un famoso escritor (we know who is going to get it; we naturally think of him as famous)

En estos concursos siempre gana el escritor famoso (and the unknown one always loses)

Se levantó el famoso escritor para recibir su premio (an obvious way of characterizing Cela)

Empezaba a formarse un charco de pintura roja (paint could be any colour)

Empezaba a formarse un charco de roja sangre (poetically intensifying the image of blood)

Siempre nos recuerda que su familia tiene sangre azul (not the red that all the rest of us have)

Empezaba a borrarse la roja pintura de sus labios (lipstick can be assumed to be red)

Especially in literary texts, writers may at times place an adjective before the noun even when the issue of differentiating or not differentiating is not so clear-cut. Since this breaks the normal pattern of adjective following noun, it will usually have the effect of creating special emphasis or stylistic effect.
 

Progresivamente llegaba el sueño. Un descendente camino hacia una fuente.

Todo el paisaje estaba transformado en una fantasmagórica apariencia.

4. Descriptive adjectives that frequently precede the noun

Some common adjectives (bueno, malo, nuevo, viejo, grande) are often used before the noun, but the principle of differentiation still applies in most cases.  The non-differentiating prenominal adjective usually has a more figurative meaning, while the postnominal one is more literal:
 

After the noun: differentiating, literal

Before the noun: figurative

obras grandes (large)

grandes obras (great, grand) 

una moto nueva (brand-new)

una nueva moto (a replacement)

la chica pobre (penniless)

la pobre chica (pitiable)

5. Other factors

The overall balance of the phrase may also be a significant factor in the placing of an adjective.  For example, more than one adjective or an adjective modified by an adverb may produce an awkward construction if all placed before the noun (or at least one that is marked for special emphasis or stylistic effect):
 

Non-differentiating adjective before noun

el hermoso paisaje del Sáhara

Still non-differentiating, but putting three words between the article and the noun makes the structure slightly awkward

el duro y hermoso paisaje del Sáhara

The non-differentiating principle is lost in favour of a more comfortable construction

el paisaje duro y hermoso del Sáhara

A ridiculously long adjectival phrase is forced between el and pintor, but this is obviously for extravagant stylistic effect

Apareció en el tejado el delirante pero incomparablemente paranoico-ingenioso pintor don Salvador Dalí

 

 

M.P. Thompson
 Updated Feb 2007

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