Invariable Adjectives in Spanish

Rare type of adjective doesn’t change in gender or number

Burger King restaurant
Restaurante Burger King en Oveido, España. (Burger King restaurant in Oveido, Spain. "Burger King" here is an invariable adjective.).

Nacho / Creative Commons.

It is sometimes said that Spanish adjectives that are nouns, such as naranja and rosa, are invariable, and that you should say, e.g. coches naranja, pantalones rosa, or otherwise coches color naranja, pantalones color rosa, etc. However, some native native speakers find it quite acceptable to use phrases such as coches naranjas. As one correspondent wrote to this site: "Are they wrong, or is it a regional thing, or has it now become acceptable? I teach Spanish, I love the Spanish language, and I find grammar fascinating — I want to make sure I am teaching my pupils correct usage."

The Basics of Invariable Adjectives

The short answer is that there is a variety of ways of saying "orange cars," and that both coches naranjas and coches naranja are among them.

In traditionally correct usage, naranja or rosa as an adjective of color should remain unchanged, even when modifying a plural noun. However, Spanish (like all living languages) is changing, and in some areas, especially in Latin America, a construction such as los coches rosas would be perfectly acceptable and even preferable. But the rule stated above is correct: Invariable adjectives (usually a noun being used as an adjective) don't change form regardless of whether they're describing something that is singular or plural. There aren't many such adjectives, the most common being macho (male) and hembra (female), so it is possible to talk about, for example, las jirafas macho, the male giraffes, and las jirafas hembra, the female giraffes.

Generally, the invariable adjectives are that way because they are thought of as nouns (as are la hembra and el macho), and they include the colors that come from names of things; esmeralda (emerald), mostaza (mustard), naranja (orange), paja (straw), rosa (rose), and turquesa (turquoise) are among them. In fact, as in English, almost anything can become a color if it makes sense to do so. So café (coffee) and chocolate can be colors, as can oro (gold) and cereza (cherry). In some areas, even the expression color de hormiga (ant-colored) can be used as a way to say something is ugly.

There is a variety of ways these nouns can be used as colors. Probably the most common, as you said, is along the lines of la bicicleta color cereza for "the cherry-colored bicycle." That's short for la bicicleta de color de cereza. Saying la bicicleta cereza is a way of shortening it even more. So the logic of saying las bicicletas cereza for "the cherry-colored bicycles" is that we're using a shortened form of las bicicletas de color de cereza. Or at least that might be an easier way to think about it than thinking about cereza as an invariable adjective.

In other words, los coches naranja would be entirely proper, although some variation of los coches (de) color (de) naranja might be more common in actual usage, again depending on the area.

What can happen over time, however, is that a noun used in this way can come to be thought of as an adjective, and once it's thought of as an adjective it probably will change form for plurals (and possibly gender). In Latin America, especially, some of these words (particularly naranja, rosa and violeta) are treated as typical adjectives that change in number. So referring to los coches naranjas would also be correct. (It should be noted that in some areas the adjective anaranjado also is frequently used for "orange").

Proper Names Often Used as Invariable Adjectives

As indicated above, macho and hembra are probably the common traditionally invariable adjectives (although you will often hear them made plural, perhaps more often than not). Others of more recent use include monstruo (monster) and modelo (model).

Almost all of the other invariable adjectives you'll come across are either proper names (such as Wright in los hermanos Wright, "the Wright brothers," or Burger King in los restaurantes Burger King) or adjectives borrowed from foreign languages. Examples of the latter include web as in las páginas web for "the web pages" and sport as in los coches sport for "the sports cars."

Key Takeaways

  • Invariable adjectives, of which there are few in Spanish, are adjectives that don't change form in feminine and plural forms.
  • Traditionally, the names of many colors are the most common invariable adjectives, although in modern usage they are often treated as regular adjectives.
  • Invariable adjectives added to the language in recent years include brand names and words imported from English.