When you learn Spanish, or any language for that matter, pretty early on, you'll want to learn how to use adjectives to help you describe the things or people around you in more detail.
Mastering adjectives in Spanish ultimately comes down to two things: (1) how to form the adjectives, and (2) where the adjectives are placed in relation to the nouns they modify.
This article will go over the basics of both adjective formation and placement, as well as a few of the most common exceptions you will come across in your conversations with Spanish speakers.
If you are just starting as a Spanish learner, don't get too overwhelmed focusing on the exceptions listed here. The basics of each section is all you will need for most adjectives.
On the other hand, if you are a more advanced Spanish learner, pay close attention to the intermediate sections of both adjective formation and placement. You may learn the reasoning behind words you have been using in your own Spanish without knowing why!
By the way, if you're getting started in Spanish and want to go from beginner to intermediate fast, I recommend Spanish Uncovered. It's my story-based course that will get you to conversational fluency quickly, without getting bogged down in grammar.
The Basics Of Spanish Adjective Formation
In Spanish, adjective endings are almost always determined by the noun they modify. In other words, the noun and the adjective must match.
This noun-adjective agreement has two components: gender and number. In other words, a camisa (blouse) is bonita (pretty), while a pair of zapatos (shoes) are bonitos.
- El hombre hizo un comentario apropriado. (The man made an appropriate comment.)
- El hombre hizo algunos comentarios apropriados. (The man made a few appropriate comments.)
- Fue la oportunidad apropriada para llamarse. (It was the proper opportunity to call them.)
- Hay muchas oportunidades apropriadas para llamar los padres. (There are many proper opportunities to call the parents.)
That's it! For Spanish adjectives ending in –o/a, noun-adjective agreement is really that simple.
Intermediate Spanish Adjective Formation
In addition to the basic pattern Spanish adjectives follow, there are some endings that require a slightly different approach.
For example, there are whole groups of adjectives that do not change ending by gender at all. These adjectives, which end in consonants, –e, or –ista, only change if they modify a plural noun.
Here are some examples:
Finally, there are a few adjectives in Spanish that require adding an –a (instead of changing the ending from –o to –a) for feminine nouns. These fall into 3 categories:
1. Adjectives that end in a consonant and refer to geography:
español, española, españoles, españolas (Spanish)
inglés, inglesa, ingleses, inglesas (English)
2. Adjectives ending in –án or –ón:
dormilón, dormilona, dormilones, dormilonas (sleepy)
cabezón, cabezona, cabezones, cabezonas (stubborn)
3. Adjectives ending in –or that are not used to compare value or size:
hablador, habladora, habladores, habladoras (chatty)
trabajador, trabajadora, trabajadores, trabajadoras (hard-working)
¡Ojo!: When writing out some adjectives, you will notice accents appearing or disappearing in different forms. The easiest way to figure out where the accent belongs is to speak the words.
The emphasis in the first syllable of fácil (easy) requires an accent, but when pluralized as faciles, the first syllable is naturally emphasized, so no accent is needed.
These few exceptions to noun-adjective agreement will begin to feel normal as you speak Spanish more. You may be surprised how quickly you pick up on the patterns, if you haven't already!
The Basics Of Adjective Placement In Spanish
In English, adjectives generally come before the noun they modify. The very first thing many people learn about Spanish adjectives is that they come after the noun instead of before.
For example, consider the following sentences in English and Spanish and where the adjectives are in relation to the nouns they modify:
- Me gusta el vino tinto, pero no me gusta vino blanco. (I like red wine, but I don't like white wine.)
- La maestra tiene una bicicleta grande y verde. (The teacher has a large, green bicycle.)
While this quick distinction between adjective placement in English and Spanish is helpful for beginner Spanish learners, it misses the complexity of the role adjectives play in a sentence.
In reality, where an adjective belongs in Spanish has a lot to do with the purpose of the adjective and in some cases, what you are trying to say.
Intermediate Adjective Placement: Limiting, Possessive And Variable Spanish Adjectives
There are many different types of adjectives, including descriptive adjectives, limiting adjectives, and possessive adjectives.
Most people do not learn to distinguish between adjective types in their native language because there is no need—phrases that make sense just sound right!
When learning Spanish, however, it is very helpful to learn the different types of adjectives. Doing so will help you recognize which adjectives come after the noun they modify (and which come before).
Limiting adjectives are adjectives that limit the noun rather than describing it, like muchos (many), cada (each), or el segundo (the second). Most limiting adjectives in Spanish come before the verb they modify:
- Nuestra tercera casa fue miniscula. El único beneficio fue una piscina privada en el jardín. (Our third house was tiny. The only advantage was a private pool in the garden.)
In the second sentence, did you notice one limiting adjective único and one descriptive adjective privada? As a limiting adjective, único came before the noun it modified, while the descriptive adjective privada came after.
Possessive adjectives (also called “possessive determiners”) are those that describe the relationship between the modified noun and the speaker or subject of the sentence. In Spanish, as in English, possessive adjectives generally come before the noun:
- Mi esposo viaja cuarenta y cino minutos al trabajo en su motocicleta. (My husband travels 45 minutes to work on his motorcycle.)
Variable adjectives are not a type of adjective at all. Rather, they are adjectives that have different meanings depending on where they are in relation to the noun.
For example, pobre means “poor” when it comes after the noun it modifies. Before the noun, on the other hand, pobre means “pitiable”.
If that seems confusing, think about the world “old” in English. If you describe someone as an “old friend,” are you saying they are also old in age? Not necessarily!
Some of the distinction in English comes from intonation or emphasis; in Spanish, the placement of the adjective is what makes the difference.
Let's look at another pair of examples with the word grande:
- Cada uno de las casas grandes tienen doce ventanas en el piso principal. (Each one of the large houses has twelve windows on the main floor.)
- Lope de Vega fue un gran dramaturgo. (Lope de Vega was a great playwright.)
In the first sentence, you see the literal definition of the word grande (large). In the second, when the adjective is placed before the modified noun, the meaning is “great” instead.
Here is a list of some common variable nouns in Spanish (including the examples already given) with their meanings:
Another way to think about the difference is that the adjectives have a more literal meaning when they come after the noun. When used before the noun, the meaning is generally figurative.
Spanish Adjectives – Putting It All Together
If you're just starting out learning Spanish and the many exceptions and specifics of Spanish adjectives seem overwhelming, don't worry!
The good news is that at their most basic, adjectives in Spanish are very simple.
The more nuanced uses of Spanish adjectives will become more natural to you as you immerse yourself in authentic Spanish every day.