Spanish adjectives hacks

The way in which adjectives are used in Spanish differs from English in two main ways:

· They show the gender of the noun they describe, and whether it is singular or plural

· Their position in the sentence


How would you describe this house...?


Whereas in English: a car, a dog, bottles and trousers could all be described simply as “black”, the adjective has four possibilities in Spanish – negra / negro / negras / negros - depending on whether the noun is feminine or masculine, singular or plural.

In addition to this, English nouns almost always go in front of the nouns they describe, a good book / a new house / a fantastic teacher, etc.

There are just a few exceptions to this rule, and they tend to be fixed phrases:

Secretary General, Poet Laureate, Attorney General, Court martial


In Spanish the adjective tends to go after the noun, but this rule is not hard and fast.

1. Colours: yes, always after:

Un pájaro amarillo (a yellow bird)

Unos coches rojos (red cars)


2. Adjectives that describe physical characteristics, or somehow classify the noun:

Una casa grande (a large house)

El presidente colombiano (the Colombian president)

Los medios occidentales (western media)

3. Whenever the adjective is modified in some way:

La caja llena de herramientas (the box full of tools)

Los artículos muy interesantes (the very interesting articles)

Un hombre bastante rico (a fairly rich man)



Adjectives can sometimes come before the noun. A few obvious ones:

Muchas gracias (many thanks)

Mi casa, tu casa (my house, your house)

Dos cervezas (two beers)


But it gets more interesting. There are some adjectives which change their meaning, depending on whether they go before or after the noun. The rule of thumb is that if they go after (in the standard way) the meaning is literal, a statement of fact, whereas if it goes before, then there is some element of subjectivity, even emotion:

Mi amiga vieja (my old (elderly) friend)

Mi vieja amiga (my old (long-time) friend


Similarly:

Un amigo grande (a friend who is large in stature)

Un gran* amigo (a great friend)

Un coche nuevo (a (brand-) new car

Un nuevo coche (a new car – new to me but could be 20 years old!)


Es una profesora buena (She’s a good teacher – by objective standards)

Es una buena profesora (She’s a really good teacher, in my opinion)


*A few adjectives lose their final –o in the masculine singular form, presumably for reasons of ease of flow in speech. This is called apocopation, which is surely one of the coolest words to learn about learning languages.

Some of these you do automatically without realising:

Un jardín (a garden)

The word for ‘one’ is uno, but it gets apocopated to ‘un’


Similarly:

Bueno (good) --- Buen trabajo (good work)

Malo (bad) --- el mal plan (the bad plan)

Ninguno (none, no, not one) --- Ningún animal (no animal)

Primero (first) --- el primer ministro (prime minister)

Tercero (third) --- el Tercer Mundo (Third World)

Ciento (hundred) --- cien euros (a hundred euros)

Santo (saint) --- San Pedro (Saint Peter)


There are a few more examples of this principle, but these are the most common.



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Andy Wenger and the Same-Sky team

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