Understanding and Using French Adjectives (Adjectifs)

Math professor teaching student
"un professeur intelligent" (smart teacher). Mlenny / Getty Images

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun by describing it in some way: shape, color, size, nationality, etc. French adjectives are very different from English adjectives in two ways:

1. French adjectives change to agree in gender and number with the nouns that they modify, which means there can be up to four forms of each adjective:

Adjective: joli (pretty)

   Masculine singular   joli
   Feminine singular   jolie
   Masculine plural   jolis
   Feminine plural   jolies

2. In English, adjectives are always found in front of the noun, but most French adjectives follow the noun they modify:

   un livre vert - green book
   un professeur intelligent - smart teacher

But there are some French adjectives that precede the noun:

   un beau garçon - handsome boy
   un petit verre - small glass

Agreement of Regular French Adjectives (Accord des adjectifs réguliers)

French adjectives change to agree in gender and number with the nouns that they modify, which means there can be up to four forms of each adjective. The different forms for adjectives depend mostly on the final letter(s) of the default form of the adjective, which is the masculine singular.

Most French adjectives add E for feminine and S for plural. This rule applies to adjectives that end in most consonants as well as all vowels except the unaccented E. It also includes all regular and most irregular present participles and past participles:

Adjective: vert (green)
   Masculine singular   vert
   Feminine singular   verte
   Masculine plural   verts
   Feminine plural   vertes

Adjective: bleu (blue)
   Masculine singular   bleu
   Feminine singular   bleue
   Masculine plural   bleus
   Feminine plural   bleues

Adjective: amusant (funny)
   Masculine singular   amusant
   Feminine singular   amusante
   Masculine plural   amusants
   Feminine plural   amusantes

Adjective: épicé (spicy)
   Masculine singular   épicé
   Feminine singular   épicée
   Masculine plural   épicés
   Feminine plural   épicées

When the masculine singular adjective ends in an unaccented E, there is no difference between the masculine and feminine forms:

Adjective: rouge (red)
   Masculine singular   rouge
   Feminine singular   rouge
   Masculine plural   rouges
   Feminine plural   rouges

When the default form of the adjective ends in S or X, there is no difference between the masculine singular and plural forms:

Adjective: gris (grey)
   Masculine singular   gris
   Feminine singular   grise
   Masculine plural   gris
   Feminine plural   grises

While most French adjectives fit into one of the above categories, there are still quite a few that have irregular feminine and/or plural forms.

Note: These rules are the same for making nouns feminine and plural.

Agreement of Irregular French Adjectives

Most French adjectives are regular, but there are a number of irregular adjectives, based on the final letter(s) of the masculine singular adjective.

Adjectives that end in a vowel plus L or N usually become feminine by doubling the consonant before adding E.

Ending: el > elle   Adjective: personnel (personal)
   Masculine singular   personnel
   Feminine singular   personnelle
   Masculine plural   personnels
   Feminine plural   personnelles

Ending: on > onne   Adjective: bon (good)
   Masculine singular   bon
   Feminine singular   bonne
   Masculine plural   bons
   Feminine plural   bonnes

Adjectives that end in er or et need a grave accent:

Ending: er > ère   Adjective: cher (expensive)
   Masculine singular   cher
   Feminine singular   chère
   Masculine plural   chers
   Feminine plural   chères

Ending: et > ète   Adjective: complet (full)
   Masculine singular   complet
   Feminine singular   complète
   Masculine plural   complets
   Feminine plural   complètes

Other final letters lead to very irregular feminine endings:

Ending: c > che   Adjective: blanc (white)
   Masculine singular   blanc
   Feminine singular   blanche
   Masculine plural   blancs
   Feminine plural   blanches

Ending: eur > euse   Adjective: flatteur (flattering)
   Masculine singular   flatteur
   Feminine singular   flatteuse
   Masculine plural   flatteurs
   Feminine plural   flatteuses

Ending: eux > euse   Adjective: heureux (happy)
   Masculine singular   heureux
   Feminine singular   heureuse
   Masculine plural   heureux
   Feminine plural   heureuses

Ending: f > ve   Adjective: neuf (new)
   Masculine singular   neuf
   Feminine singular   neuve
   Masculine plural   neufs
   Feminine plural   neuves

Irregular plurals: The ending al changes to aux in the plural:

Adjective: idéal (ideal)
   Masculine singular   idéal
   Feminine singular   idéale
   Masculine plural   idéaux
   Feminine plural   idéales

Note: Most of the above rules are the same for making nouns feminine and plural.

Irregular French adjectives

There are several French adjectives which have irregular feminine and plural forms, as well as a special form when they are placed in front of a masculine noun that begins with a vowel or a mute H:

   un bel homme - a handsome man
   un vieil ami - an old friend

Adjective  mascvowel/H   femmascfem
beautiful beaubelbellebeauxbelles
newnouveau   nouvel nouvelle   nouveaux   nouvelles

Position of French Adjectives

In English, adjectives virtually always precede the nouns they modify: a blue car, a big house. In French, adjectives may be placed before or after the noun, depending on their type and meaning. This concept can be aggravating for French learners, but with patience and practice you'll be able to describe any object like a natural.

The following explanations should cover about 95% of adjectives, but, alas, there are always some exceptions.

1. Placement after the noun
Most descriptive adjectives are placed after the noun they modify. These normally have an analytical meaning, in that they classify the noun into a certain category. These types of adjectives include shape, color, taste, nationality, religion, social class, and other adjectives that describe things like personality and mood.

   une table ronde - round table
   un livre noir - black book
   du thé sucré - sweet tea
   une femme américaine - American woman
   une église catholique - Catholic church
   une famille bourgeoise - middle-class family

In addition, present participles and past participles used as adjectives are always placed after the noun.

   une histoire intéressante - interesting story
   un débat passionné - lively debate

2. Placement before the noun
Certain adjectives are placed before the noun, some which you can memorize with the acronym "BAGS":

   Good and bad
   Size (except for grand with people - see 3, below)

These descriptors - and a few others - are considered inherent qualities of the noun:

   une jolie fille - pretty girl
   un jeune homme - young man
   une nouvelle maison - new house
   un bon enfant - good child
   un petit problème - small problem
   les sincères condoléances - sincere condolences
   les vagues promesses - vague promises
   un gentil garçon - kind boy

In addition, all non-descriptive (i.e., demonstrativeindefiniteinterrogativenegative, and possessive) adjectives are placed before the noun:

   ces livres - these books
   chaque personne - each person
   quel stylo ?

 - which pen?
   aucune femme - no woman
   mon enfant - my child

3. Placement depends on meaning
Some adjectives have both a figurative and an analytic (literal) sense and can thus be placed on either side of the noun. When the adjective is figurative, it goes before the noun, and when it's analytic, it goes after the noun.

Figurative:  mes vertes années   my green (fruitful) years
Literal:  des légumes verts   green vegetables

Figurative:  un grand homme   a great man
Literal:  un homme grand   a tall man

Figurative:  un triste individu   a sad (mean or bad) person
Literal:  un individu triste   a sad (crying) person

Figurative:  mon ancienne école   my old (former) school
Literal:  mon école ancienne   my old (aged) school

Figurative:  un certain regard   a certain (type of) look
Literal:  une victoire certaine   a certain (assured) victory