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Do Spanish adjectives appear before or after the noun?

A young woman wearing traditional clothes.
Spanish adjectives appear AFTER the noun in general (el artículo interesante). This differs from English, where adjectives generally appear before the noun (the interesting article). Nevertheless, things can be a bit tricky — in this post, you’ll see that some Spanish adjectives can appear before or after the noun, while others only appear before the noun, and others change meaning depending on where they are placed. Let’s dive into it!

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

Here are some more examples of types of adjectives that usually go after the noun:
  • 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
This little rule applies to the majority of the cases, but let’s cover the rest!

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).

  • Demonstrative:   

este libro 

this book

  • Possessive: 

mi libro 

my book

  • Indefinite: 

algún libro

some books

  • Quantity:

muchos libros 

many books

  • Number: 

 siete libros

seven books

  • Order: 

 Juan es mi primer hijo.

Juan is my first son.

Exception!

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):

1. Vivo en el primer piso / vivo en el piso primero.
I live on the first floor.
2. el último capítulo /  el capítulo último 
the last chapter

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.

To differentiate

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?

  1. Leí el libro largo.                           I read the long book.
  2. 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. 

  1. Me envió una pequeña postal.
    He sent me a small postcard.
  2. 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 languageFormal contextPoetic context
Shape →

Relative →
El ordenador cuadrado
estaba sobre
una mesa pequeña.
El ordenador cuadrado
estaba sobre
una pequeña mesa.
El cuadrado ordenador se
encontraba sobre una
pequeña mesa.

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.

  1.  la antigua casa de mi abuela
    my grandma’s former house
  2. 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:

unoone
buenogood
malobad
primerofirst
tercerothird
algunosome, any
ningunonone

el hombre buenoel buen hombre  

the good man

el camino maloel mal camino

the bad path

el piso primeroel 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

Exception!

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

Summary

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 buenobuen (good) or grandegran (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!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Unpacking the grammar

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.
Meet The Author:
Author-De Nicolas Foto
Irati de Nicolás Saiz
Irati is a linguist and an experienced University Spanish teacher with a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Meaning Changing Adjectives

Activities:

Adjectives Position Activity

Activities:

Adjectives Position Activity

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