10 Facts About Spanish Adjectives

A Quick Grammar Guide to What You Need To Know

scene from Bolivia
Overlooking El Alto, Bolivia.

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Here are 10 facts about Spanish adjectives that will be useful to know as you pursue your language studies:

1. Adjective Is a Part of Speech

An adjective is a part of speech that is used to modify, describe, limit, qualify, or otherwise affect the meaning of a noun, pronoun, or a phrase functioning as a noun. The words we most often think of as adjectives are descriptive words]—words such as verde (green), feliz (happy), fuerte (strong) and impaciente (impatient). Some other types of words such as la (the) and cada (each) that point to nouns or noun substitutes are sometimes classified as adjectives, although can also be classified as determiners or articles.

2. Adjectives Have Gender

Adjectives in Spanish have gender, and a masculine adjective must be used with a masculine noun, a feminine adjective with a feminine noun following the principle of noun-adjective agreement. Some adjectives change in form with gender, while others don't. Generally, a masculine adjective that ends in -o or -os (in the plural) can become feminine by changing the ending to -a or -as. But singular nouns that don't end in -o generally don't change form to become feminine.

3. Adjectives Have Number

Unlike in English, adjectives in Spanish also have number, meaning they can be singular or plural. Again, following the principle of noun-adjective agreement, a singular adjective is used with a singular noun, a plural adjective with a plural noun. Singular adjectives become plural by adding an -s or -es suffix. The singular masculine form of adjectives is the one that is listed in dictionaries.

4. Some Adjectives Are Invariable

A very few adjectives are invariable, meaning they don't change form among plural and singular, masculine and feminine. Traditionally, the most common invariable adjectives are macho (male) and hembra (female), as can be seen in the sentence "Los animales macho en general proporcionan muchos menos atenciones parentales que las animales hembra" ("Male animals in general provide much less parental attention than the female animals do"), although you'll also see these words pluralized sometimes as well. Rarely, and then most often in journalese or phrases that have been imported from English, a noun can function as an invariable adjective, as web in the phrase sitios web (websites). Such cases of nouns as adjectives are the exception rather than the rule, and Spanish students should not freely use nouns as adjectives as can be done in English.

5. Placement Can Matter

The default location for descriptive adjectives is after the noun they refer to. When the adjective is placed before the noun, it typically gives an emotional or subjective quality to the adjective. For example, la mujer pobre is likely to refer to a woman who has little money, while la pobre mujer is likely to suggest that the speaker feels sorry for the woman, even though both could be translated as "the poor woman." In this way, the word order in Spanish sometimes eliminates the ambiguity of meaning that is present in English.

Nondescriptive adjectives such as determiners come before the nouns they refer to.

6. Adjectives Can Become Nouns

Most descriptive adjectives can be used as nouns, often by preceding them with a definite article. For example, los felices could mean "the happy people," and el verdes could mean "the green one."

When a descriptive adjective is preceded by lo, it becomes an abstract noun. Thus lo importante means something like "what is important" or "that which is important."

7. Suffixes Can Be Used

The meaning of some adjectives can be modified by using diminutive or augmentative suffixes. For example, while un coche viejo is simply an old car, un coche viejecito might refer to a quaint car or an older car that someone likes.

8. Verb Use Can Affect Meaning

In sentences of the type "noun + form of 'to be' + adjective," the adjective might be translated differently depending on whether the verb ser or estar is used. For example, "es seguro" often means "it is safe," while "está seguro" usually means "he or she is certain." Similarly, ser verde can mean something is green, while estar verde can indicate immaturity rather than color.

9. No Superlative Forms

Spanish doesn't use suffixes such as "-er" or "-est" to indicate superlatives. Instead, the adverb is used. Thus, "the bluest lake" or "the bluer lake" is "el lago más azul." Context determines whether the reference has to do with more of the quality or the most of a quality.

10. Some Adjectives Are Apocopated

A few adjectives are shortened when they appear before singular nouns in a process known as apocopation. One of the most common is grande, which is shortened to gran, as in un gran ejército for "a great army."