The adjectives and nouns in Spanish are one of the first things we learn; more specifically, that nouns come first, as opposed to what they do in English. It’s such an interesting little quirk, and we spend a lot of time getting into the habit of sticking that adjective where it belongs!
And then we get a little better at Spanish, and we see sentences where the adjective is…before the noun? What? Wait, I thought the noun came first! Whose side are you on!?
As it turns out, sometimes the noun comes first, sometimes the adjective. And you have to learn the difference, because sometimes, depending on the order you choose, you may not be saying what you’re trying to say!
So what’s the difference? When it comes to adjectives and nouns in Spanish, which goes where?
There are two reasons to put an adjective before its noun in Spanish: when the adjective is common sense, and when the adjective puts a little poetic justice into what you’re saying.
Let me explain.
The white snow. El blanco nieve.
Well, yeah it’s white snow. Obviously. I mean, unless it’s yellow snow, but that’s besides the point. Snow is white. We know this.
The black night. La negra noche.
Clearly, nighttime is black. The sun’s gone. We know this, too.
As you can see, adjectives and nouns in Spanish sometimes have a different relationship than we originally thought. We put our adjectives before their nouns when the descriptions are already known. We’re not trying to differentiate the black night from anything else, because the night is black and is always black. Compare this to, for example, la camisa roja, or the red shirt; in this sense, the adjective roja differentiates this camisa from the camisa verde. We need this adjective to tell us which shirt you’re talking about.
Okay, back on track. When else do we see the adjective before the noun in Spanish?
For one, when we’re talking about la increíble mujer who rescued a starving orphan from a burning house and raised him as her own! How incredible, right?! That’s an amazing woman!
Or how about for el pobre hombre who had his electronics stolen from his locked car? That’s such an unfortunate situation, we definitely want to truly express how sad it is.
So, we sometimes see an adjective before a noun in Spanish when we’re trying to highlight something. Really express a certain concept, maybe evoke a strong emotion.
This contrasts from using an adjective after the verb, as the language is, again, used in a different way. We don’t want to specify that we’re talking about this shoe as opposed to that one, but we’re trying to really accentuate the concept about el pobre hombre.
Now, with the concept of using adjectives in order to describe a concept regarding a noun, this means that sometimes, depending on where an adjective is placed, the adjective may carry a different meaning.
Let’s go back to el pobre hombre. This poor, poor man. He’s come across such misfortune, having his computer stolen!
But wait! If we put pobre after hombre, the man because someone who simply doesn’t have a lot of money. It’s a fact. We are differentiating the poor man from the rich man. We don’t feel sorry for the man with less money, just stating that he is not rich.
So, as you can see, in Spanish we use adjectives to make our statements a bit more precise than they are in English. We kind of brushed up on this before when talking about mal, mala, bien, and bueno, and when to use those adjectives. If we talk about the poor man in English, well, it could very well mean both poor as in unfortunate and poor as in not wealthy. Though, to be honest, in the English language, they both mean the same thing. You don’t have money? Poor, poor you.