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Objective and Subjective Adjectives

Putting Adjective Before Noun Can Affect How It's Understood

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Question: I read recently on your French Language site an article on fickle French adjectives. It said that adjectives placed after nouns have objective or literal meanings, while those coming before the noun often have subjective or figurative meanings. Is that true in Spanish also?

Answer: Yes, it is. The distinction isn't a hard and fast one, but placing a descriptive adjective before a noun often gives it an emotive or figurative quality, while an adjective placed after a noun is generally understood to be merely descriptive.

As an example, look at an adjective such as oscuro, which means "dark." A phrase such as una noche oscura would be understood as meaning the night is literally dark, perhaps a night with no moon showing. But una oscura noche offers a different image, one that may not be apparent in English translation. It could be the difference between "a dark night" and "a d-a-a-r-r-k night." In context, it might mean the night was somewhat spooky or scary, for example. Or it could mean that even though the night isn't particularly dark in a literal sense, it is nevertheless gloomy.

To take another example, un hombre triste would typically refer to a sad man. But when the adjective is placed first, it makes the adjective into an evaluation of sort, so un triste hombre might be understood as referring to a wretched man, a man who is a sad example of humanity. Other examples of adjectives whose means vary with placement are listed in our lesson on adjectives' placement and meaning.

Because an adjective before the noun often has an emotional quality, most adjectives used as epithets or highly emotional descriptions are typically placed before nouns. A few examples: mi negra suerte, my rotten luck; esos cochinas computadoras, those lousy computers; malditos yanquis, damn Yankees.

Here are some examples of sentences where the emotive qualities of the adjective can be seen. As is often the case, the translations given here are not the only ones possible:

  • Y cuando llega el último acto, y la muerte hace su aparición y el cuerpo es enterrado en la fría tierra, no importa que todos los amigos hayan partido. And when the final act arrives and death makes its appearance and the body is buried in the cold ground, it doesn't matter that all your friends have departed. (The writer here isn't speaking so much about the temperature of the ground, but conveying a feeling about the nature of death.)
  • Los turistas de muchos países confluyen con los domésticos para visitar esta relativamente aislada ciudad sureña. Tourists from many countries join with locals to visit this relatively isolated southern city. (The writer here may be suggesting that the city is more than geographically isolated. It may be culturally isolated as well, for example.)
  • El secretario general abrió hoy la puerta a una nueva etapa de relación con Rusia basada en el "realismo". The secretary general today opened the door to a new stage in relations with Russia based on "realism." (The placement of nueva here may say something about the step being an important one, or it may convey the idea of hope.)
  • El cantante debutó con resonante éxito en Tokio. The singer debuted with resounding success in Tokyo. (The placement of the adjective strengthens its meaning.)
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