This is lesson 6 in Crashed Culture’s Spanish Grammar series.
Spanish adjectives are a doozy for native English speakers – where we say “the brown dog”, they say “the dog brown”. So from the very beginning, we have to work extra hard to flip around those words before we say them. It’s stressful and it takes a lot of effort, but we get the hang of it.
Then, once we find ourselves getting a little bit more comfortable with Spanish adjectives, 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 Spanish adjectives and nouns, which goes where?
The order of adjectives and nouns
First things first, what an adjective actually is. An adjective is the part of the sentence that describes things. It can be anything from a color to size, or any other kind of description. For example:
The red ball
The big building
The fast car
The old woman
Any kind of word that is used to describe something is an adjective. In English, we put our adjectives before our nouns, like in those examples above. In Spanish, we usually put our adjectives after our nouns. So, generally, Spanish sentences go like this:
The ball red
The building big
The car fast
The woman old
This is the first major difference between adjectives in English and adjectives in Spanish.
Masculine and feminine adjectives
The second major difference between adjectives in English and adjectives in Spanish is their relationship. In English, we don’t have to do anything; whether the noun in singular, plural, happy, sad, real, or make-believe, our adjectives don’t do anything to conform to our nouns.
With “a” and “o” endings
In Spanish, though, we have to be aware of our nouns. First, we have our masculine and feminine nouns. Most of the time, we know the difference between masculine and feminine because of the letter that the word ends in. For example:
El perro corto (the short dog)
El chico feo (the ugly boy)
La esquina roja (the red corner)
La revista aburrida (the boring magazine)
Besides matching masculine with masculine and feminine with feminine, we also need to match singular with singular and plural with plural. So if the above examples were plural:
Los perros cortos
Los chicos feos
Las esquinas rojas
Las revistas aburridas
With other endings
Although all nouns in Spanish are either masculine or feminine, not all of them end in ‘o’ or ‘a’. Some of them end in consonants. When this is the case, stick an “es” at the end of the nouns and an “os” or “as” at the end of the adjectives (depending on if they’re masculine or feminine) and call it a day. For example:
Los relojes antiquos (the old clocks)
Los botones negros (the black buttons)
Las flores amarillas (the yellow flowers)
Las noches largas (the long nights)
This rule works for all adjectives that end in consonants except for those that end with ‘z’. This is our last spelling exception, and don’t worry, it’s not difficult. Take the ‘z’, switch it to a ‘c’, and add an ‘es’. This does not change the pronunciation of the words, because these sounds are the same in Spanish. For example:
Las chicas felices (the happy girls)
Los leones feroces (the ferocious lions)
Los gatos Incapaces (the incapable cats)
The order of nouns and adjectives in Spanish
While the rules of conjugation take a second to handle, they’re relatively simple – a little bit of practice and you’ll be set to go! The hard part about adjectives in Spanish is figuring out where to put them when the “normal” order might not be correct.
If you’re still at a more of a beginner level, don’t worry – 99% of the time, putting your adjective after the noun will be correct. However, there are some exceptions. So, let’s talk about when it’s appropriate to have the adjective first, instead.
- Quantities – adjectives come first
The first instance in which the adjective comes first is when we’re talking about the quantity of something. For example:
Dos ojos (two eyes)
Más fuego (more fire)
Demasiado tiempo (too much time)
Any adjective used to describe quantity is always before the noun.
- Possessive/demonstrative – adjectives come first
Our next instance is possessive and demonstrative adjectives, which are words like “your, my, this, those”, etc. Either adjectives that explain who owns the thing, or which thing you’re pointing out. So, for example:
Mi nombre teléfono (my phone number)
Nuestra casa (our house)
Este caballo (this horse)
Eso vestido (that dress)
- Obvious, already understood – adjectives come first
The last and final case where the adjective comes before the noun is when the adjective is already understood. It’s not new information. For example:
El alto gigante (the tall giant)
La vieja abuela (the old grandmother)
El caliente sol (the hot sun)
These are all the cases in which the adjective will always be before the noun: when quantifying a noun, in possessive/demonstrative cases, and when the adjective is already understood. In all other cases (which is just about 99% of the time), you can go ahead and keep the adjective at the end.
- Meaning-changing adjectives – adjectives come first or last, depending on what you want to convey
Our last, final topic are those pesky old adjectives that have their own rules. Sometimes they’re first, and sometimes they’re last; it really all depends on what your message is. This part will take a little bit of time but you’ll get it.
Unfortunately, this bit comes with memorization and immersion. Just like native Spanish speakers, you’ll learn to just feel these. That being said, I wouldn’t stress too too much on these. It’s important that you understand them in a logical sense, but it’s a pretty abstract concept that doesn’t exist in English.
Below are a collection of adjectives that can change the meaning of a sentence based on whether they’re placed before or after their nouns. Here’s your key:
- Before the noun: subjective, more of an emotional adjective than differentiating
- After the noun: objective, purely descriptive adjective, with no emotional investment
The only girl
The lonely girl
Spanish adjectives: before or after the noun?
Figuring out where your Spanish adjectives belong is a beginner concept, but it is arguably the first concept that can take some studying to actually understand. However, when you get it, and get it really well, it’ll make your path into intermediate and advanced Spanish significantly easier.
One last time:
Adjective goes before the noun:
- Describing quantities (specific numbers, too many, enough)
- Possessive/demonstrative cases (mine, his, that, those)
- Obvious, already understood (tall skyscraper, green leaves, blue sky)
Adjective goes after the noun:
- In 99% of all cases
Adjective can go before or after the noun:
- In specific cases where the position of the adjective defines the meaning of the sentence