Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
What is the general case?
As mentioned, the general case is that Spanish adjectives usually appear after the noun. Take a look at the example below — the adjective rápido (fast) appears after the noun:
Noun + Adjective
el perrito rápido
the fast doggy
- Color: el libro rojo the red book
- Shape: el libro rectangular the rectangular book
- State: el libro cerrado the closed book
- Origin: el libro inglés the English book
Only before the noun
Some Spanish adjectives can only appear before the noun, such as mero (mere), supuesto / presunto (alleged). As illustrated in the following example, when these adjectives appear after the noun, the sentence is not grammatically correct.
la supuesta ladrona
la ladrona supuesta
the alleged thief
Also, there are certain non-descriptive adjectives that always go before the noun: Spanish demonstratives, Spanish possessive adjectives, indefinite adjectives, adjectives of quantity, e.g. mucho (many), poco (little), and adjectives that indicate number, e.g. uno (one), dos (two), or order, e.g. primero (first), segundo (second), próximo (next).
Juan es mi primer hijo.
Juan is my first son.
Adjectives that indicate order go after the noun when we talk about kings or popes:
Juan Pablo segundo
John Paul II
However, order adjectives go before or after the noun when we talk about the floor of a building (in example one) or a book chapter (in example two):
As you may have observed in example one, some of these adjectives change form depending on their position (primer piso/piso primero). Keep reading to find out when Spanish adjectives change form!
Before or after the noun
In some instances, adjectives can go either before or after the noun, depending on the effect you want to create in conversation or in writing. Let’s explore three situations when adjectives can go either before or after the noun.
Sometimes, the placement of an adjective is used to differentiate the noun in context. There are some Spanish adjectives that can appear before or after the noun, for example: bonito (beautiful), blanco (white), and largo (long). Why is this so?
First, when we place these adjectives after the noun, we create a differentiation effect in the context of the conversation, as in example one below. Take a look at the following situation:
¿Qué libro leíste? Which book did you read?
- Leí el libro largo. I read the long book.
- Leí el largo libro.
In example one, we distinguish “the long book” from other books (I had several books, but I ended up reading the long one). To contrast, in example two, when the adjective is placed before the noun, we don’t get this reading of differentiation. Instead, we are emphasizing the quality of the book (it’s a long book). Keep reading to find out more!
Some other times, Spanish adjectives can be placed before the noun. We place adjectives before the noun in two specific contexts — for emphasis and for style. Let’s dig deeper!
To emphasize quality
Some adjectives are placed before the noun in order to emphasize a quality of the noun for descriptive or explanatory purposes as in example one.
- Me envió una pequeña postal.
He sent me a small postcard.
- Dame unas cajas pequeñas.
Give me some small boxes.
In example one, we use the adjective before the noun, because we want to highlight the quality of the postcard, in this case, its size. On the other hand, in example two, we place the adjective after the noun because we want to differentiate that object from others as discussed in the previous section: Which boxes? The small boxes, not the big ones.
Common adjectives that can go before the noun and create this difference in emphasis are: largo/corto (long/short), rápido/lento (fast/slow), fuerte (strong), bonito (beautiful), among others. These are called relative adjectives, because they have a relative meaning. For example, something is longer or shorter depending on the object we are comparing it to.
For stylistic choice
Some other times, the use of adjectives before the noun is a stylistic choice, and it depends on the speaker’s intention. For example, in everyday language, relative adjectives are often placed after the noun, while in a formal context they are used before the noun as discussed in the previous section. In addition, adjectives that are not relative adjectives (color, shape, etc.) can be used before the noun in poetic contexts.
|Everyday language||Formal context||Poetic context|
|Shape → |
|El ordenador cuadrado |
una mesa pequeña.
|El ordenador cuadrado |
una pequeña mesa.
|El cuadrado ordenador se |
encontraba sobre una
The square computer was on the small table.
Change in meaning
Finally, sometimes there will be a change in meaning, depending on the position of the adjective. In the examples below, the adjective antiguo (old, former) appears before the noun in example one and after the noun in example two. In the first example the meaning we get is “former,” while in the second it means “old”—it is an old building.
- la antigua casa de mi abuela
my grandma’s former house
- la casa antigua de mi abuela
my grandma’s old house
Here you can find a list of more adjectives that can appear before or after the noun.
Where to place Spanish adjectives in questions?
The same adjective rules that apply to Spanish statements also apply to Spanish interrogatives. Let’s see some examples:
¿Dónde pusiste el libro azul?
Where did you put the blue book?
¿Quién crees que sea la supuesta ladrona?
Who do you think is the alleged thief?
To know more about word order in Spanish questions, check out How to build questions in Spanish?
When do Spanish adjectives change form?
Some adjectives change form when they come before a noun. There are two groups: a) those that change form only before singular masculine nouns and b) those that change form before both masculine and feminine nouns. We’ll review both groups next!
Adjectives that change only in masculine
Some adjectives change only in the masculine form. The following adjectives lose their final -o when they are used before a singular masculine noun:
el hombre bueno → el buen hombre
the good man
el camino malo → el mal camino
the bad path
el piso primero → el primer piso
the first floor
They do not change at all with a feminine noun:
la mujer buena → la buena mujer
the good woman
una experiencia mala → una mala
experiencia a bad experience
por vez primera → por primera vez
for the first time
Adjectives that change in both masculine and feminine
Other adjectives change in both the masculine and feminine forms. The adjective grande (big) changes before a masculine or a feminine noun:
Masculine → un apartamento grande
un gran apartamento
a big apartment
Feminine → una mesa grande
una gran mesa
a big table
The adjective grande does not change form before a noun when:
- Used with más (more/most)
la más grande ocasión the biggest occasion
- Used with any other adjective
la bonita y grande casa the beautiful and big house
Spanish adjectives generally appear after the noun, although as we have discussed, there are some exceptions. Let’s summarize them:
- Some adjectives can only appear before the noun: mero (mere), supuesta (alleged); as well as demonstratives, possessives, indefinites, and quantity adjectives.
- Order adjectives usually go before the noun, except if we refer to chapters in a book or floors in a building — these can go before or after the noun.
- Some adjectives can appear before or after the noun. When these adjectives are placed after the noun, they create a differentiation effect. When these adjectives are placed before the noun, they emphasize the quality of the noun. Other times, the position relative to the noun depends on stylistic choices, including the formality of the context, or poetic use of language.
- Some adjectives change meaning depending on the position of the adjectives, such as viejo (old, former) or antiguo (old, former).
- Some adjectives change form when they are placed before the noun, such as bueno → buen (good) or grande → gran (big)
Don’t forget that Spanish adjectives agree in gender and number with the nouns they accompany.
Find more adjectives that change meaning depending on their position and examples that illustrate this point. Or, if you want to practice more, we have created some exercises with an answer key. Enjoy!
Demonstrative adjectives are a type of adjective that is used to identify or point out a noun by locating it somewhere in the space, time, or context of the conversation. In Spanish, demonstrative adjectives agree in gender and number with the noun they modify.
- Demonstrative adjectives in Spanish include este/esta/estos/estas (this, these), ese/esa/esos/esas (that, those), and aquel/aquella/aquellos/aquellas (that over there, those over there).
Possessive adjectives are adjectives that are used to show possession or relationship of the nouns they modify. Like all adjectives in Spanish, they must agree in number and gender with the noun they describe.
- Possessive adjectives in Spanish include mi/mis (my), tu/tus (your), su/sus (his/her/your/its), nuestro/nuestra/nuestros/nuestras (our), and vuestro/vuestra/vuestros/vuestras (your).
Indefinite adjectives are adjectives that are used to refer to the nouns they modify in a general way. Words like “some,” “several,” “all,” and “every” are examples of indefinite adjectives.
- Indefinite adjectives in Spanish include algún/alguna/algunos/algunas (some), ningún/ninguna (not any), among others.