Adjective Placement in Spanish

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson provides you with the rule for placing adjectives in Spanish. As with most rules, there are some exceptions and this lesson also provides you with an explanation for each exception, which you will often find in Spanish.

The Rule

A foreigner told me once 'eres una amable amiga' (you are a kind friend). While I understood, such comment sounds very dramatic. The reason is in Spanish, adjectives (words that modify nouns) come after nouns. Thus, the correct expression would have been 'eres una amiga amable'. So, to not sound unnecessarily dramatic, you follow a simple rule, which is 'noun + adjective,' exactly the opposite of English. Let's look at these examples:

John es un hombre responsable. (John is a responsible man.)

El perro blanco es mío. (The white dog is mine.)

Yo quiero la mesa grande. (I want the big table.)

As the bold noun + adjective show, the rule applies. Also, the rules applies for descriptive adjectives of:

  • color: casa blanca (white house), taza azul (blue cup), etc.
  • size or any physical characteristic: silla pequeña (small chair), mujer guapa (beautiful woman), etc.
  • personality: gato amigable (friendly cat), mujer atlética (athletic woman), etc.
  • nationality: hombre mexicano (Mexican man), mujer argentina (Argentinian woman), etc.
  • religion: niña musulmana (Muslim girl), sacerdote católico (Catholic priest), etc.

As a tip, note that nationalities and religions are not capitalized in Spanish.

monje budista (Buddhist monk)
nounadj

Now, let's look at the exceptions that contradict this rule.

First Exception: Literary Tone and Emphasis

It is important not to get confused when seeing something that breaks the rule. This is precisely the case for writing with a literary tone and for emphasis. For example, if a poet wants to emphasize how black is someone's hair, s/he would say:

el negro cabello (the black hair, pronounced: ehl neh-groh kah-beh-yoh)

When following the rule and saying el cabello negro, you are simply describing hair that is 'black.'

Similarly, it you want to emphasize how important a document is, you would say:

el importante documento (the important document, pronounced: ehl eem-pohr-tahn-teh doh-koo-mehn-toh)

When following the rule and saying el documento importante, you are simply describing the document as being 'important.'

Second Exception: Adjectives that Always Break the Rule

There are some adjectives that always go in front of a noun. This is simply because they follow a different grammar rule. Those adjectives, which include an example, are:

  • mejor' (best, pronounced: meh-hor)

Lisa es mi mejor amiga. (Lisa is my best friend.)

  • peor (worst, pronounced: peh-ohr)

El rojo es el peor marcador. (The worst marker is the red one).

  • buen, buena (good, -masculine and feminine- pronounced: boo-ehn, boo-ehnah)

Carlos es buen profesor. (Carlos is a good teacher.)

  • mal, mala (bad, -masculine and feminine- pronounced: mahl, mah-lah)

mala suerte (bad luck)

  • pésimo, pésima (terrible, pronounced: peh-see-moh, peh-see-mah)

pésima empleada (terrible -female- employee)

  • único (only one, pronounced: oo-nee-koh)

El único estudiante que aprueba es Fernando. (The only student who passes is Fernando.)

  • gran (great, pronounced: grahn)

Ernest Hemingway es un gran escritor. (Ernest Hemingway is a great writer.)

gran actor (great actor)
adjnoun

Third Exception: Adjectives with Different Meanings

There are a few adjectives that will follow the rule (noun + adjective) or will break it (adjective + noun) depending on their meaning. Those adjectives are:

  • nuevo, nueva (new, -masculine and feminine, singular- pronounced: noo-eh-boh, noo-eh-bah). The plural forms are: nuevos, nuevas

If the meaning is 'brand new,' then the adjective follows the rule 'noun + adjective.' For example:

el coche nuevo de Mariana (Mariana's new car)

However, if the meaning is that a new thing or person is a replacement, the adjective goes in front of the noun. For example:

el nuevo esposo de Mariana (Mariana's new husband)

  • antiguo, antigua (ancient and former, pronounced: ahn-tee-goo-oh, ahn-tee-goo-ah). The plural forms are: antiguos, antiguas

If the meaning is 'ancient,' then the adjective follows the rule 'noun + adjective.' For example:

la pieza arqueológica antigua es importante. (The ancient archaeological piece)

However, if the meaning is 'former,' the adjective goes in front of the noun. For example:

el antiguo profesor de Literatura (The former Literature professor)

  • pobre (poor, pronounced: poh-breh). The plural form is pobres.

If the meaning is someone or something has low financial resources, then the adjective follows the rule 'noun + adjective.' For example:

un barrio pobre (a poor neighborhood)

However, if the meaning is someone or something inspires pity, the adjective goes in front of the noun. For example:

El pobre perro (The poor dog)

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