Unit 3: Introduction to the present tense and adjectives

3.2 Agreement and Placement of Adjectives

Adjectives in Spanish agree in number and gender with the noun they modify, as, for example seen in the previous reading: una ciudad moderna, próspera (feminine, singular), or centro económico (masculine, singular). In these examples, as the noun ciudad is feminine and singular, it takes the feminine singular form of the adjectives, moderna and próspera. Likewise, the masculine singular noun centro takes the masculine singular form of the adjective, económico.

Adjectives ending in –o have four forms:

mucho muchos
mucha muchas

Adjectives ending in –e have two forms, one for all singular nouns and one for all plural ones:

importante importantes
pobre pobres

Adjectives ending in a consonant have four endings:

trabajador trabajadores
trabajadora trabajadoras

These include adjectives of nationality:

español españoles
española españolas

When reading in Spanish, try to get used to looking for adjectives after the noun and translating them before the noun. In theory, an infinite number of adjectives can follow a noun:

Es un país libre, democrático, próspero, moderno, y joven. It is a free, democratic, prosperous, modern, and young country.

Adjectives that follow the noun inherently imply a contrast:

La ciudad vieja es bella, pero la ciudad nueva no. The old city is beautiful, but not the new city.

Adjectives of quantity (including numbers, almost all of which are adjectives) precede the noun they modify:

Muchos chicos están aquí. There are many boys here.
Hay pocas ciudades en el desierto. There are few cities in the desert.
Existen tres países en la región. There are three countries in the region.

At times an adjective that normally follows the noun may precede it for emphasis, when no contrast is implied:

La blanca nieve es muy bella. The white snow is very beautiful.
La vieja ciudad es muy interesante. The old city is very interesting.

Although there may not necessarily be a way to render the difference in translation of many nouns with an adjective placed before versus after, remember that post-placement (adjective after noun) implies if not states a contrast; pre-placement is for emphasis. The speakers in the two sentences above are emphasizing the whiteness of the snow and oldness of the city, without any implicit contrast with anything else.

In a few cases, however, placing the same adjective before versus after the noun normally changes its meaning. Two such adjectives are grande and antiguo. (Grande changes form, to gran, whenever it precedes a singular noun.)

Es un país grande.  It is a large country. 
Es un gran país. It’s a great country.
Es una ciudad antigua, de los tiempos romanos. It’s an ancient (a very old) city, from Roman times.
Pedro es mi antiguo marido. Pedro is my former (ex) husband.

Occasionally in the plural when grandes precedes a noun, it may have the meaning of “major,” which in some cases can be a synonym of “great”: ¿Quiénes son los grandes poetas de Perú?” (“Who are the major [great] poets of Peru?”) Also, grande does not shorten to gran when used in the superlative. (See section 7.2.)

The above should be taken as a general guideline for the placement and meaning of antiguo, as there are times when for emphasis it is placed before the noun and mean “very old.”


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