It is often said that adjectives come after nouns in Spanish. But this isn't entirely true-some types of adjectives frequently or always come before the nouns they modify, and some can be placed either before or after nouns.
Beginners usually don't have much difficulty with the placement of numbers, indefinite adjectives (words like /"each" and algunos/"some"), and adjectives of quantity (such as mucho/"much" and pocos/"few"), which precede nouns in both languages. The main difficulty facing beginners is with descriptive adjectives. Students often learn that they are placed after the noun, but then they are surprised to find when they're reading "real" Spanish outside their textbooks that adjectives are often used before the nouns they modify.
The General Rule for Placement of Descriptive Adjectives
Most of the words we think of as adjectives are descriptive adjectives, words that impart a quality of some sort to the noun. Most of them can appear either before or after a noun, and here is the general rule for where:
After the Noun
If an adjective classifies a noun, that is, if it is used to distinguish that particular person or object from others that could be represented by the same noun, it is placed after the noun. Adjectives of color, nationality, and affiliation (such as of religion or political party) usually fit in this category, as do many others. A grammarian might say in these cases that the adjective restricts the noun.
Before the Noun
If the main purpose of the adjective is to reinforce the meaning of the noun, to impart emotional effect on the noun, or to convey appreciation of some sort for the noun, then the adjective often is placed before the noun. A grammarian might say these are adjectives used nonrestrictively. Another way of looking at it is that placement before the noun often indicates a subjective quality (one dependent on the view of the person speaking) rather than an objective (demonstrable) one.
Examples of How Placement of Adjectives Affect Their Meaning
Keep in mind that the above is a general rule only, and sometimes there is no discernible reason for a speaker's choice of word order. But you can see some of the common differences in usage in the following examples:
- la luz fluorescente (the fluorescent light): Fluorescente is a category or classification of light, so it follows luz.
- un hombre mexicano (a Mexican man): Mexicano serves to classify un hombre, in this case by nationality.
- La blanca nieve estaba por todas partes. (The white snow was everywhere.): Blanca (white) reinforces the meaning of nieve (snow) and could also impart an emotional effect.
- Es ladrón condenado. (He is a convicted thief.): Condenado (convicted) distinguishes the ladrón (thief) from others and is an objective quality.
- ¡Condenada computadora! (Blasted computer!): Condenada is used for emotional effect.
To see how word order could make a difference, examine the following two sentences:
- Me gusta tener un césped verde. (I like having a green lawn.)
- Me gusta tener un verde césped. (I like having a green lawn.)
The difference between these two sentences is subtle and not readily translated. Depending on the context, the first might be translated as "I like having a green lawn (as opposed to a brown one)," while the second might be translated as "I like having a green lawn (as opposed to not having a lawn)" or convey the idea of "I like having a beautiful green lawn." In the first sentence, the placement of verde (green) after césped (lawn) indicates a classification. In the second sentence verde, by being placed first, reinforces the meaning of césped.
How Word Order Can Affect Translation
The effects of word order indicate why some adjectives are translated differently into English differently depending on their location. For example, una amiga vieja usually is translated as "a friend who is old," while una vieja amiga is usually translated as "a longtime friend," indicating some emotional appreciation. Note how "an old friend" in English is ambiguous, but the Spanish word order eliminates that ambiguity.
How Adverbs Affect Adjective Placement
If an adjective is modified by an adverb, it follows the noun.
- Compro un coche muy caro. (I am buying a very expensive car.)
- Era construida de ladrillo rojo excesivamente adornado. (It was build of excessively decorated red brick.)
- Certain types of adjectives, such as indefinite adjectives and adjective of quantity, always go before the nouns they refer to.
- Descriptive adjectives that put the noun in a classification typically follow that noun.
- However, descriptive adjectives that reinforce the meaning of a noun or give it an emotional connotation often are placed ahead of that noun.