Where Does the Adjective Go in Spanish?

Spanish adjectives can come before or after the noun, depending on purpose

Iguazú Falls
Las cataratas maravillosas y inolvidables de Iguazú. (The magical, unforgettable Iguazu Falls.).

 Werner Büchel / Getty Images

One of the first things you may be told when you start studying the Spanish adjective is that, unlike its English counterpart, it comes after the noun. But it doesn't take very much reading of Spanish to find out that the "rule" about word order is meant to be broken; it is actually quite common to place adjectives before nouns.

Certainly, adjectives — especially descriptive adjectives (ones that describe a quality of something) — usually come after the noun, and sometimes they must. But there are some adjectives that preferably come before the noun, and even a few whose meanings change depending on where they're placed.

Here are some of the different types of adjectives and where you will find them:

Nondescriptive Adjectives

Most adjectives other than those that describe go before the noun. Sometimes these adjectives are classified by other names, such as possessive adjectives or determiners.

  • pocos libros (few books)
  • muchas palomas (many doves)
  • mi casa (my house)
  • esta mesa (this table)
  • dos libros (two books)

Colors

Colors come after the noun.

  • la flor roja (the red flower)
  • la Casa Blanca (the White House)

Adjectives Indicating Membership or Classification

These include adjectives of nationality and various types of affiliation and nearly always come after the noun. Note that such adjectives aren't capitalized in Spanish even when they are based on a proper noun such as the name of a country.

  • la mujer ecuatoriana (the Ecuadoran woman)
  • el sacerdote católico (the Catholic priest)
  • el restaurante chino (the Chinese restaurant)
  • el juez demócrata (the Democratic judge)

Adjectives Modified by an Adverb or Phrase

These come after the noun.

  • la taza llena de agua (the cup full of water)
  • el libro muy interesante (the very interesting book)
  • la computadora bastante buena (the quite good computer)

Multiple Adjectives

When two or more adjectives of similar importance describe something, they go after the noun.

  • la casa grande y cara (the big and expensive house)
  • el zapato tradicional y barato (the traditional, cheap shoe)

Adjectives of Appreciation

By placing an adjective before the noun, you can sometimes indicate a degree of appreciation for that quality and/or emphasis. In English we sometimes do the same thing by using a word such as "really" or by a change in intonation. Often the distinction isn't ready translatable.

  • Es un músico bueno .(He's a good musician.) Es un buen músico. (He's a really good musician.)
  • la hermosa vista (the beautiful view)
  • Hollywood, la ciudad de incontables películas (Hollywood, the city of countless movies.)

Adjectives Conveying Emotion

It is very common to place adjectives that convey emotion or feelings before the noun:

  • el inolvidable cantante (the unforgettable singer)
  • un increíble historia (an incredible story)
  • una estupenda película (a stupendous movie)

Sometimes, the fact that an adjective conveys emotion results in it having a different meaning, or at least a different English translation, depending on whether they're placed before or after the noun. Generally, the adjectives placed after the noun have an objective meaning or one that carries little or no emotional content, while one placed before the noun can indicate something about how the speaker feels toward the person or thing being described.

  • mi viejo amigo (my longtime friend), mi amigo viejo (my elderly friend)
  • el gran canal (the grand canal), el canal grande (the large canal)
  • un hombre triste (a sad man), un triste hombre (a pathetic man)

Reinforcing Adjectives

Adjectives that reinforce the meaning of the noun, such as adjectives that "go with" the accompanying noun, often are placed before the noun. In many cases, one might also say that the purpose of these adjectives is less for describing the noun that's modified and more for conveying some sort of an emotion to it.

  • una oscura noche (a dark night)
  • el horrible monstruo (the horrible monster)
  • la alta montaña (the high mountain)
  • la blanca nieve (the white snow)

Another way of explaining such adjectives is that they point to an essential characteristic of what is being described:

  • las verdes hojas (the green leaves)
  • el delicado equilibrio (the delicate balance)
  • sangre rojo (red blood)

Key Takeaways

  • Adjectives that are purely descriptive come after the nouns they refer to.
  • Adjectives that are used for grammatical purposes other than describing the nature or state of the nouns they refer to, such as determiners, typically come before nouns.
  • Many descriptive adjectives can come before or after the nouns they refer to; when placed before, they often impart an emotional quality to the description.