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. Often, the determining factor in an adjective's placement is its purpose in the sentence.
Beginners usually don't have much difficulty with the placement of numbers, indefinite adjectives (words like cada/"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 (which they usually are), 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.
- Tip for beginners: Most of the material in this lesson is more appropriate for intermediate students than for beginners. If you're new to learning Spanish, it isn't important at this point to memorize the rules. What is important to remember is that while descriptive adjectives usually follow the nouns they modify, if one appears before the noun in something written or said by a native speaker it's probably not a mistake, and there is probably a reason why the adjective is where it is.
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.
Keep in mind that this 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, making it emphatically subjective. For this reason, most vulgar adjectives of disparagement precede the nouns they describe.
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 "I like having a beautiful 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 and indicates some aesthetic appreciation.
The effects of word order indicate why some adjectives are translated into English differently depending on their location. For example, un amigo viejo usually is translated as "a friend who is old," while un viejo amigo is usually translated as "a longtime friend," indicating some emotional appreciation. Similarly, un hombre grande is usually translated as "a big man," while un gran hombre is "a great man," indicating a subjective quality rather than an objective one. (Grande, when it precedes a singular noun, is shorted to gran.) As you continue your studies, you will come across about another dozen adjectives that are similar.
Final note: If an adjective is modified by an adverb, it follows the noun. Compro un coche muy caro, I am buying a very (muy) expensive (caro) car (coche.)