Fickle French Adjectives

Adjectifs qui changent de sens

Most French adjectives must be placed after the noun they modify, except for the BAGS exceptions (learn more). There are also a number of French adjectives which have different meanings depending on where they are placed. Generally speaking, when the adjective precedes the noun, it has a figurative or subjective meaning, whereas the adjective which follows the noun has a literal or objective meaning.



Here are the most common "fickle" French adjectives; if you know of others which should be added to this list, please let me know.

ancien
Figurative or subjective meaning
   mon ancienne école - my old (former) school
   un ancien château - an old château (now a hotel)
Literal or objective meaning
   mon école ancienne - my old (aged) school
   un château ancien - an ancient château

bon
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une bonne réputation - a good reputation
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme bon - a good (charitable) man

brave
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un brave homme - a good (decent) man
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme brave - a brave man

certain
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un certain regard - a certain (type of) look
   un certain âge - old age (euphemism)
Literal or objective meaning
   une victoire certaine - a certain (assured) victory
   un âge certain - old age (rude)
Word play: Certain âge et âge certain

cher
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un cher ami - a dear friend
Literal or objective meaning
   un pull cher - an expensive sweater

chic
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une chic fille - a nice, decent girl
Literal or objective meaning
   une fille chic - a classy girl

curieux
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un curieux homme - a curious (strange) man
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme curieux - a curious (nosy) man

dernier
Figurative or subjective meaning
   la dernière semaine - the last week (of the year)
Literal or objective meaning
   la semaine dernière - last week (the one before this one)

différent
Figurative or subjective meaning
   différentes idées - various ideas
Literal or objective meaning
   une idée différente - different idea

divers
Figurative or subjective meaning
   divers étudiants - various, several students
Literal or objective meaning
   des étudiants divers - varied, diverse students

doux
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une douce musique* - sweet music
   un doux parfum* - sweet perfume
Literal or objective meaning
   la moutarde douce - sweet mustard    la peau douce - soft skin

drôle
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un drôle d'idée - strange idea
Literal or objective meaning
   une histoire drôle - funny story

faible
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une faible chance - weak, poor, slight chance
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme faible - a weak man

fameux
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un fameux problème - a heck of a problem
Literal or objective meaning
   un vin fameux - first-rate wine

franc
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un franc imbécile - total idiot
Literal or objective meaning
   une différence franche - clear difference

grand
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un grand homme - a great man
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme grand - a tall man

gros
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un gros problème - big problem
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme gros - fat man

honnête
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un honnête homme** - a gentleman
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme honnête - an honest man

jeune
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une jeune femme - a young woman
Literal or objective meaning
   une femme jeune - youthful woman

*For this meaning, the adjective can precede or follow the noun

**Somewhat archaic

maigre
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un maigre repas - skimpy, meager meal
Literal or objective meaning
   un garçon maigre - skinny boy

méchant
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un méchant cigare - great big cigar
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme méchant - mean (cruel) man

même
Figurative or subjective meaning
   le même jour - the same day
Literal or objective meaning
   le jour même - the very day

modeste
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un modeste repas - small, simple meal
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme modeste - modest, humble man

noble
Figurative or subjective meaning
   nobles aspirations - noble, worthy aspirations
Literal or objective meaning
   une femme noble - imposing, respected woman

nouveau
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un nouveau produit - a new, alternative product
Literal or objective meaning
   un produit nouveau - a new, original product

pauvre
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un pauvre homme - a poor (pitiful) man
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme pauvre - a poor (penniless) man

plat
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une plate excuse - a humble excuse
Literal or objective meaning
   un pays plat - a flat country

premier
Figurative or subjective meaning
   le premier problème - first problem
Literal or objective meaning
   le problème premier - fundamental, basic problem

prochain
Figurative or subjective meaning
   la prochaine semaine - the following week
Literal or objective meaning
   la semaine prochaine - next week

propre
Figurative or subjective meaning
   ma propre chambre - my own bedroom
Literal or objective meaning
   une chambre propre - a clean bedroom

pure
Figurative or subjective meaning
   la pure imagination - pure, total imagination
Literal or objective meaning
   l'eau pure - pure water

rare
Figurative or subjective meaning
   d'une rare beauté - exceptionally beautiful
Literal or objective meaning
   un oiseau rare - rare bird

rude
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une rude tâche - difficult task
Literal or objective meaning
   une barbe rude - rough beard

sacré
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un sacré menteur - a damn liar
Literal or objective meaning
   un objet sacré - a sacred object

sale
Figurative or subjective meaning
   une sale ville - a nasty town
Literal or objective meaning
   une ville sale - a dirty town

seul
Figurative or subjective meaning
   la seule fille - the one/single/only girl
Literal or objective meaning
   une fille seule - lonely girl, a girl who is alone

simple
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un simple homme - a mere (plain, ordinary) man
Literal or objective meaning
   un homme simple - a modest, honest man

triste
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un triste individu - a sad (mean, bad) person
Literal or objective meaning
   un individu triste - a sad (crying) person

unique
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un unique fils - an only son
Literal or objective meaning
   un fils unique - only child (who is a boy)

véritable
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un véritable problème - serious problem
Literal or objective meaning
   un problème véritable - genuine (not fake) problem

vert
Figurative or subjective meaning
   mes vertes années - my green (fruitful) years
Literal or objective meaning
   légumes verts - green vegetables

vilain
Figurative or subjective meaning
   vilains mots - bad words
Literal or objective meaning
   un garçon vilain - ugly or naughty child

vrai
Figurative or subjective meaning
   un vrai ami - a real, true friend
Literal or objective meaning
   une histoire vraie - true story

Comments and additions