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Position of adjectives in Spanish

In Spanish, adjectives can be placed either before or after the noun they modify.

Noun + adjective

Read and listen to these examples:

Tú vas a comprar un ordenador japonés.You are going to buy a Japanese computer.

Tengo una camisa roja.I have a red shirt.

Laura y Eva comieron platos picantes.Laura and Eva ate spicy dishes.

Nosotros escuchamos canciones relajantes.We listened to relaxing songs.

In the examples above, the adjective is placed after the noun. It describes a noun and attributes a quality to it that differentiates it. For example, the adjective japonés makes a distinction between "Japanese computers" and computers from other countries.

Noun + adjective is the most common order for adjectives in Spanish.

 

Adjective + noun

Now, read and listen to these examples:

La blanca nieve era preciosa en invierno.The white snow was lovely in winter.

Había un charco de roja sangre en el suelo.There was a puddle of red blood on the floor.

Nos encantó ese dulce pastel de chocolate.We loved that sweet chocolate cake.

Los campos españoles producen verdes lechugas de calidad.Spanish lands produce green lettuces of quality.

In the examples above, the adjective is placed before the noun. The adjective is not describing the noun in order to differentiate it, instead it is expressing that this quality is naturally associated with the noun it modifies. For example, la nieve, la sangre and las lechugas have characteristic colours, so the adjectives are emphasising them, but not differentiating them from other nouns.

Adjective + noun is rarely heard in spoken Spanish, but it can be seen in literary texts to emphasise characteristics.

Bear in mind that sometimes we place the adjective in front of the noun simply to emphasise/highlight that quality, even if it is not an adjective naturally associated wth the noun; for example:

Pudimos contemplar paisajes hermosos a lo largo de nuestro viaje.We could see beautiful landscapes along our journey.

Pudimos contemplar hermosos paisajes a lo largo de nuestro viaje.We could see beautiful landscapes along our journey.

The second example is more emphatic.

En este canal ponen documentales interesantes.On this channel they show interesting documentaries.

En este canal ponen interesantes documentales.On this channel they show interesting documentaries.

Again, the second example is more emphatic.

 

Meaning depends on the order

However, there are other times when the meaning of the adjective changes, depending on its position before or after the noun.  

Read and listen to these examples:

Aquel hombre pobre no tiene dinero.That poor man doesn't have money. (penniless)

Aquel pobre hombre era muy desgraciado.That poor man was very unfortunate. (pitiable/unfortunate)

In the examples above, the adjective pobre changes meaning depending on its position before or after the noun.

The position of the adjective prior to the noun generally adds an extra nuance to the meaning. Bear in mind though that this difference in meaning/extra nuance is not applicable to absolutely all nouns. Sometimes this nuance happens with specific nouns.

Have a look at this list of common meaning-changing adjectives:

Adjective Before the noun After the noun
antiguo  former antique/old (in age)
bajo  low  short
bueno  simple/good good/gentle/generous
grande great big
pobre unfortunate poor
viejo former/long-time old/aged

 

Here are some contrasting examples:

If we say:

Pobre Marisa, tiene tan mala suerte...Poor Marisa, she is so unlucky... 

We are referring to Marisa being unfortunate, pitiable, unlucky; we are not saying that she is "poor" meaning without money.

but if we say:

El chico pobre tiene muy mala suerte...The poor guy (the guy who is poor) is very unlucky...

Here we are referring to a guy who is poor (he doesn't have any money)

If we say:

Fernando es un viejo amigo de mis tiempos de universidad.Fernando is an old friend from my time at university.

This is referring to a friend of long-standing, a friendship that started long ago.

But look at the meaning when the adjective is after the noun:

 
Fernando es un amigo viejo, pero el resto de mis amigos son jóvenes.Fernando is a friend who is old, but the rest of my friends are young.
Remember that adjectives always agree in gender and number with the noun they modify, regardless of their position!

See also Bueno, malo, grande become buen, mal, gran before a noun (apócope).

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Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Nos encantó ese dulce pastel de chocolate.We loved that sweet chocolate cake.
En este canal ponen interesantes documentales.On this channel they show interesting documentaries.
Tú vas a comprar un ordenador japonés.You are going to buy a Japanese computer.
Pobre Marisa, tiene tan mala suerte...Poor Marisa, she is so unlucky... 
Había un charco de roja sangre en el suelo.There was a puddle of red blood on the floor.
Pudimos contemplar hermosos paisajes a lo largo de nuestro viaje.We could see beautiful landscapes along our journey.
Tengo una camisa roja.I have a red shirt.
Aquel pobre hombre era muy desgraciado.That poor man was very unfortunate. (pitiable/unfortunate)
La blanca nieve era preciosa en invierno.The white snow was lovely in winter.
Pudimos contemplar paisajes hermosos a lo largo de nuestro viaje.We could see beautiful landscapes along our journey.
Aquel hombre pobre no tiene dinero.That poor man doesn't have money. (penniless)
En este canal ponen documentales interesantes.On this channel they show interesting documentaries.
Laura y Eva comieron platos picantes.Laura and Eva ate spicy dishes.
Fernando es un amigo viejo, pero el resto de mis amigos son jóvenes.Fernando is a friend who is old, but the rest of my friends are young.
Los campos españoles producen verdes lechugas de calidad.Spanish lands produce green lettuces of quality.
Fernando es un viejo amigo de mis tiempos de universidad.Fernando is an old friend from my time at university.
Nosotros escuchamos canciones relajantes.We listened to relaxing songs.
El chico pobre tiene muy mala suerte...The poor guy (the guy who is poor) is very unlucky...
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