Translating Attributive Nouns to Spanish

Nouns Function as Adjectives Often in English, Almost Never in Spanish

Sports injury
No quiero asumir el riesgo de sufrir una profunda herida deportiva. (I don't want to take the risk of suffering a serious sports injury.). Photo by Durah Ramli; licensed via Creative Commons.

In English it is extremely common to use nouns as adjectives. For example, in the phrase "tuna salad," "tuna" acts as an adjective by describing the type of salad, but it is listed only as a noun in dictionaries and always fulfills that function except in phrases such as "tuna salad," "tuna fisher" and "tuna casserole." In fact, almost any noun can be used attributively in English.

But that's not so in Spanish. With very rare exceptions (see the final section below), nouns cannot function as adjectives in Spanish. In translating from English to Spanish, you usually must use one of the methods below to convey the idea of the noun.

Using the Preposition 'De'

By far the most common way of translating attributive nouns is to use the preposition de followed by the noun. For example, a tuna salad is una ensalada de atún. De in these cases can be thought of as meaning "of."

  • Wood products were the ones preferred by Peruvians. Los productos de madera fueron los preferidos por los peruanos.
  • When I was a girl, the best medicine I took for treating a cold was a bowl of chicken soup. Cuando era niña, la primera medicina que tomaba para tratar un resfriado era un plato de sopa de pollo.
  • The university closed the fraternity house. La universidad cerró la casa de la fraternidad.
  • I think the flower market is a must-see. Creo que el mercado de flores es de visita obligatoria.
  • The baseball field is where they play the baseball game. El campo de béisbol es donde juegan el partido de béisbol.

Using the Preposition 'Para'

If the attributive noun is a gerund — that is, formed by adding "-ing" to a verb — you can often translate by using the preposition para followed by an infinitive.

  • Cooking wines can vary widely in quality. Los vinos para cocinar pueden variar mucho en calidad.
  • Puerto Angelito is a marvelous swimming beach. Puerto Angelito es una estupenda playa para nadar.
  • A good cutting board will last a long time. Una buena tabla para cortar durará mucho tiempo. (De cortar also could have been used here.)

Use of Adjective Forms

Spanish has an abundance of adjectives that are the equivalent of "de + noun" phrases and are used instead of or in addition to such phrases. As in the examples below, many of them don't have English equivalents that are adjectives.

  • Police are holding a computer hacker. La policía detiene a un hacker informático.
  • The cost of wind electricity is less than the cost of electricity generated by oil products. El coste de la electricidad eólica es inferior que el coste de la generada por productos petrolíferos.
  • The copilot was the one responsible for the airline accident. El copiloto fue el responsable del accidente aéreo.
  • I don't want to take the risk of suffering a serious sports injury. No quiero asumir el riesgo de sufrir una profunda herida deportiva.

Using Nouns as Invariable Adjectives

When a noun is placed immediately after another noun to describe it, it becomes an invariable adjective, that is, one that doesn't change form with the gender and number of the noun that precedes it. Most of them that are in common use, probably not many more than a dozen not counting certain colors, are imports from English. You cannot freely use nouns this way, so you should use them like this only if you hear native speakers doing so.

  • The actress is trying to be a model prisoner. La actriz está intentando ser una prisionera modelo.
  • There are no standard rooms with views of the pool. No hay cuartos estándar con vistas a la piscina.
  • Crack cocaine is a powerful stimulant. La cocaína crack es un poderoso estimulante.

Family and brand names are also used this way: la computadora Apple (the Apple computer), los hermanos Karazamov (the Karazamov brothers).

Sources: Sample Spanish sentences have been adapted from sources that include,,, Minube,,, CubaDebate and eHowenEspañol.