For Teachers: Adjective Placement in Spanish - Translation Skills Training

For Teachers: Adjective Placement in Spanish

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For Teachers: Adjective Placement in Spanish

This Tip for the Week is for teachers who teach lower-level Spanish classes to native speakers of English, whether at the secondary or post-secondary level.

This week, we cover the placement of descriptive and quantitative adjectives, and offer examples of how a handful of descriptive adjectives change meaning depending on their position.  This often puzzles students, so the explanation offered in this brief item might help some of them.

As teachers of Spanish are aware, once students understand the rules governing gender and number agreement in Spanish and once they are confident that they can make the articles and adjectives associated with a Spanish noun agree with it in gender and number, the next step is to prepare them to fine-tune a few notions about the placement of adjectives with respect to the noun. Thus, this fine-tuning requires a focus on noun phrases, which are typically comprised of an article, a noun and an adjective.  This order of placement is a typical, high- frequency phenomenon in Spanish and so students can be puzzled when they encounter a noun phrase comprised of an article, an adjective and a noun.

Teachers now that there is more to the story and sometimes enter into the details with a bit of anxiety, worrying about what their students might unlearn as they concentrate on something new.  The first distinction that can be made with considerable optimism that it will work is to consider the difference in the placement of descriptive adjectives as opposed to quantitative adjectives.

Colors are excellent examples of descriptive adjectives and numbers, or words that indicate how much or how many, are convenient examples of quantitative adjectives.

Descriptive adjectives follow nouns. They reveal the qualities of the nouns they modify and, as mentioned, colors are the easiest and immediately understood example of qualitative adjectives for students.

Quantitative adjectives precede nouns.  They reveal raw data about amounts as they refer to nouns, and thus, frequently used words include muchos (many, lots), algunos, unos, or pocos (some or a few), tres (three), primer (first).  One passing comment about primer: its full form is primero (in the masculine) which must be shortened to primer before a singular masculine noun. The feminine form, primera, and does not apocopate (shorten), regardless of its position relative to the noun it modifies.

If a descriptive adjective and a quantitative adjective both modify the same noun, the word order is:

article + quantitative adjective + noun + descriptive adjective.

Thus, if you want to say the five red roses, you would need to say las cinco rosas rojas. Notice that cardinal numbers – the ones used for counting – do not reflect the gender of nouns.

In addition, there are three high-frequency qualitative adjectives in Spanish whose placement with respect to the noun changes depending on the meaning the speaker intends them to have.  This is an important point.  Students need to understand that it is not the order in which they appear that changes their meaning per se – it is the speaker who indicates his or her choice of the meaning of by changing the word order in their mind – before speaking or writing.

They are: grande (abbreviated to gran when it is placed before any noun, just as primero shortens to primer before a singular masculine one), pobre and nuevo. These three adjectives require two examples each in order to show how they “change meaning” when placed either after the noun or before.  First, students need to keep in mind that they are still descriptive adjectives – there is nothing that can change that, but as you will see, there is a way to classify what kind of description is taking place depending on their placement relative to the noun.

Here are our examples. See if you can see any pattern in how the adjectives change meaning by position:

el hombre grande = the large man

el gran hombre = the great man


la niña pobre = the poor girl [that is with no money]

la pobre niña = the unfortunate girl


el carro nuevo = the new car [off the new-cars’ sales lot]

el nuevo carro = the new car [for you, perhaps; it could be brand new or used]

From the previous examples, it can be inferred that when these descriptive adjectives are placed after the nouns (the position they usually are found), their meaning is literal, but when they are placed before the noun (a position they usually do not occupy), they take on a figurative meaning.

With some vocabulary for dealing with colors, quantities (numbers, ordinal and cardinal) as well as adjectives about quantity, such as muchos, as you read above, you’ll be able to help your students master the handful of patterns of word placement within Spanish noun phrases.

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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