One of the first things you may be told when you start studying the Spanish adjective is that, unlike its English counterpart, it comes after the noun. But it doesn't take very much reading of Spanish to find out that the "rule" about word order is meant to be broken; it is actually quite common to place adjectives before nouns.
Certainly, adjectives — especially descriptive adjectives (ones that describe a quality of something) — usually come after nouns, and there are some cases where they must. But there are some adjectives that preferably come before the noun, and even a few whose meanings change depending on where they're placed.
Here are some of the different types of adjectives and where you will find them:
Colors: Colors come after the noun.
- Examples: La flor roja, the red flower; la Casa Blanca, the White House.
Adjectives indicating membership or classification: These include adjectives of nationality and various types of affiliation and nearly always come after the noun. Note that such adjectives aren't capitalized in Spanish.
- Examples: La mujer ecuatoriana, the Ecuadoran woman; el sacerdote católico, the Catholic priest; el restaurante chino, the Chinese restaurant; el juez demócrata, the Democratic judge.
Adjectives modified by an adverb or phrase: These come after the noun.
- Examples: La taza llena de agua, the cup full of water; el libro muy interesante, the very interesting book; la computadora bastante buena, the quite good computer.
Multiple adjectives: When two or more adjectives of similar importance describe something, they go after the noun.
- Example: La casa grande y cara, the big and expensive house.
Adjectives of appreciation: By placing an adjective before the noun, you can sometimes indicate a certain amount of appreciation for that quality and/or a certain amount of emphasis. In English we sometimes do the same thing by using a word such as "really" or by a change in intonation.
- Examples: Es un músico bueno, he's a good musician; es un buen músico, he's a really good musician; la hermosa vista, the beautiful view; Hollywood, la ciudad de incontables películas, Hollywood, the city of countless movies.
Reinforcing adjectives: Adjectives that reinforce the meaning of the noun, such as adjectives that "go with" the accompanying noun, often are placed before the noun. In many cases, one might also say that the purpose of these adjectives is less for describing the noun that's modified and more for conveying some sort of an emotion to it.
- Examples: Una oscura noche, a dark night; el horrible monstruo, the horrible monster; la alta montaña, the high mountain; la blanca nieve, the white snow.
Nondescriptive adjectives: Many adjectives other than those that describe go before the noun.
- Examples: Pocos libros, few books; muchas palomas, many doves; mi casa, my house; esta mesa, this table; dos libros, two books. Sometimes these adjectives are known by other names, such as possessive pronouns and determiners.
Meaning-changing adjectives: Some adjectives change in meaning (or at least in English translation) depending on whether they're placed before or after the noun. Generally, the adjectives placed after nouns have an objective meaning or one that carries little or no emotional content, while one placed before the noun can indicate something about how the speaker feels toward the person or thing being described.
- Example: Mi viejo amigo, my longtime friend; mi amigo viejo, my elderly friend.
Generally, except for the meaning-changing adjectives, you won't go wrong by placing a descriptive adjective after the noun. However, as you examine Spanish writing or listen to the spoken language, you will develop a "feel" for those cases where you can or should place adjectives ahead of the noun.