Un coche nuevo or un nuevo coche? Un buen día or un día bueno?
Spanish adjectives are more complicated than English adjectives. When you use Spanish adjectives, you not only do you have to match the gender of the adjective with the noun but you also have to match the number and you have to get the order right.
On top of that, there are lots of exceptions to the usual rules.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Spanish adjectives. Of course, it is a big topic, so where I haven’t explained every rule and every exception, I’ll give you a few resources where you can find the answer.
Now—I did say that this is a definite guide—so let’s start with the definition of an adjective and the first fundamental difference between Spanish adjectives and English ones.
What is an adjective?
The simplest definition of an adjective is:
A word that describes or clarifies a noun.
Adjectives typically tell us an important detail about a noun. Details such as colour, size, shape, temperature or age.
A few examples in English:
- The old clock.
- The red ball.
- The ripe apple.
- The tall building.
- The hot towel.
Here the words old, red, ripe, tall and hot are adjectives.
Another way to look at English adjectives is to notice they can combine with the verb “to be” as follows:
- The clock is old.
- The ball is red.
- The apple is ripe.
- The building is tall.
- The towel is hot.
In Spanish, there are two verbs for “to be”: ser and estar. This means that the translation of the above sentences requires a little bit of care. The sentences translated to Spanish are:
- El reloj es viejo.
- La pelota es roja.
- La manzana está madura.
- El edificio es alto.
- La toalla está caliente.
This is the first place where Spanish adjectives stray from their English counterparts. And it’s the first challenge with Spanish adjectives that you need to be aware of.
What you need to know is that some Spanish adjectives are only used with the verb estar, some adjectives are only used with the verb ser and some are used with both.
Here are some examples:
- Importante is always used with ser.
Correct: es importante.
- Contento is always used with estar.
Correct: está contento.
- Frío can be used with both.
Correct: es frío.
Correct: está frío.
Of the adjectives that are used with both ser and estar, there is also the potential for a subtle or even drastic change in meaning.
As I mentioned earlier that I won’t cover every aspect of Spanish adjectives in this post. You can read more about how Spanish adjectives are modified by ser and estar here.
How to match Spanish adjectives with masculine and feminine nouns
In English, there is no such thing as a masculine or feminine noun. We don’t have to worry about matching genders with adjectives. In Spanish, you do.
You have to change the ending of an adjective to match the noun—or, at least, where you can!
Spanish adjectives can be split into two groups:
- Adjectives ending in ‘o’ such as corto, rico, bajo, lógico and distinto.
- Adjectives ending in any letter other than ‘o’ such as triste, popular, difícil, común and capaz.
For adjectives that end in ‘o’, you have to change the ending of the adjective to an ‘a’ for feminine nouns or keep the ‘o’ for male nouns. Here are a few examples:
English: A short story.
Español: Una historia corta.
English: A rich dessert.
Español: Un postre rico.
English: The low voice.
Español: La voz baja.
English: Her logical thought.
Español: Su pensamiento lógico.
English: A different accent.
Español: Un acento distinto.
For Spanish adjectives that end in any letter other than an ‘o’, you don’t have to do anything with the ending:
English: A sad dog.
Español: Un perro triste.
English: A popular idea.
Español: Una idea popular.
English: A difficult problem.
Español: Un problema difícil.
English: The common man.
Español: El hombre común.
English: A capable person.
Español: Una persona capaz.
Next…let’s look at how to deal with plural nouns.
How to match Spanish adjectives with plurals
If you want to match Spanish adjectives with plural nouns you need to group them in a similar way to the last section on gender matching but with a slight twist.
For plural nouns, Spanish adjectives need to be grouped as follows:
- Masculine and feminine adjectives that end in the vowels ‘o’, ‘a’ and ‘e’ such as largo, pasota and pobre.
- Adjectives that end in a consonant such as joven, regular and igual.
- Adjectives that end in a ‘z’ such as feliz, eficaz and capaz.
For adjectives that end in an ‘o’, ‘a’ and ‘e’, all you have to do to match plural nouns is add the letter ‘s’. Here are a some examples:
English: These long days.
Español: Estos días largos.
English: Some easygoing boys.
Español: Unos chicos pasotas.
English: The poor neighbourhoods.
Español: Los barrios pobres.
For adjectives that end in a consonant, you have to add ‘es’:
English: The young minds.
Español: Las mentes jóvenes.
English: Their regular routines.
Español: Sus rutinas regulares.
English: The equal parts.
Español: Las partes iguales.
For adjectives that end in a ‘z’, you have to replace the ‘z’ with a ‘c’ and add ‘es’:
English: The happy memories.
Español: Los recuerdos felices.
English: The effective results.
Español: Los resultados eficaces.
English: The capable workers.
Español: Los trabajadores capaces.
In reality, this last rule is only important for written Spanish. The letters ‘z’ and ‘c’ are pronounced like an ‘s’ in South American countries and like a ‘th’ in Spain. Therefore the spelling change doesn’t really affect pronunciation.
How to deal with Spanish adjective order
Now for the toughest part of Spanish adjectives, apart from the exceptions—the order!
I’ll start by stressing that rules of Spanish adjective order are out of control!!
Sometimes the order is dictated by the noun, sometimes by the adjective, sometimes by the context and sometimes by convention.
As an aside, even if you consult authority Spanish language organisations such as Real Academia Española or Fundéu BBVA, you’ll still only find an incomplete theory of adjective order and you’ll find an inconsistency with the rules.
So, firstly—to simplify—when on the topic of Spanish adjective order, a close Spanish friend of mine once said:
“In 9 out of 10 situations the adjective comes after the noun.”
Therefore, if you couldn’t be bothered reading the rest of this post or you can’t remember the following rules, just guess and put the adjective after the noun. You will be right 90% of the time.
For a more scientific approach, keep reading…
Since there is no good authority for a theory of categorising Spanish adjective order, I’ve come up with my own.
I have broken down the rules in the way that I believe make sense, are easy to understand, are wide-reaching in their application and can be remembered.
So when it comes to order, the behaviour of Spanish adjectives can be categorised as follows:
- Adjectives that must be put after the noun.
- Adjectives that must be put before the noun.
- Adjectives that can be put in either position without changing meaning.
- Adjectives that change meaning depending on their position.
For the rest of this section, I’ll refer to these as group 1, group 2, etc.
The smallest group of adjectives is group 3. So let’s start there.
Group 3 – Adjectives that can change position without changing meaning
This is the smallest group because there really are only two adjectives:
Bueno – Good
Malo – Bad
You will see later, in the adjective group that changes meaning with position, often the change in meaning is from something literal to something literary.
For bueno and malo a change to something literary doesn’t make sense. Things are good or bad—plain and simple.
At the start of this post I asked:
Is it un día bueno or un buen día?
The answer: it doesn’t matter. Both sentences are correct and translate to ‘a good day’.
What you should notice, however, is that when bueno and malo go before a masculine noun you drop the ‘o’. There are, of course, more exceptions but I’ll explain these in the next section.
Here are a few more examples:
English: A good book.
Español: Un buen libro. Un libro bueno.
English: A bad idea.
Español: Una idea mala. Una mala idea.
English: A bad boy.
Español: Un chico malo. Un mal chico.
Group 2 – Adjectives that must go before the noun
This is the second smallest group. This group is worth remembering because you’ll know if an adjective isn’t in this group it can or should go after the noun.
The first two adjectives in this group are:
Mejor – Best
Peor – Worst
In Spanish, if something is ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’, it is always announced before the noun. Some examples:
English: My best friend.
Español: Mi mejor amigo.
Mi amigo mejor.
English: The worst class.
Español: La peor clase.
La clase peor.
The next type of adjective in this group is called adjetivos numerales. These are adjectives that tell the number or order of their nouns. For example:
English: There are three options.
Español: Hay tres opciones.
Hay opciones tres.
English: Their first child.
Español: Su primer hijo.
Su hijo primero.
Next is a group similar to adjetivos numerales called adjetivos cuantitativos. These tell you something about quantity. Things like a lot, a little, quite and too much. Some examples:
English: Too much work.
Español: Demasiado trabajo.
English: Quite some time.
Español: Bastante tiempo.
Then there are adjetivos posesivos which are adjectives like ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘our’, etc. You can learn more about these here. A few examples:
English: My life.
Español: Mi vida.
English: Our world.
Español: Nuestro mundo.
The last type of adjective in this group is called adjetivos explicativos. This type of adjective expresses something inherently characteristic about the noun. For example, ice is inherently cold and sugar is inherently sweet. These examples in Spanish are:
English: The cold ice.
Español: El frío hielo.
English: The sweet sugar.
Español: El dulce azúcar.
It is possible to see this last type of adjective go after the noun but it is very uncommon. If you were to say azúcar dulce to a native you will likely be corrected.
Group 4 – Adjectives that can change meaning with position
The group of Spanish adjectives that acts as the inverse to the last set of examples is called adjetivos especificativos. The majority of Spanish adjectives—and the remaining types for this post—fall into this category.
Adjectivos especificativos tell you something about the noun that isn’t already known. In other words, they specify the noun.
As an aside, the most helpful explanation I have heard to explain the difference between ‘adjetivos especificativos’ and ‘adjetivos explicativos’ is to think of them as restrictive and non-restrictive adjectives respectively.
When you specify a ‘blue car’, you have restricted the number of possible car options. If you say ‘cold ice’ you haven’t restricted anything, you could be referring to any type of ice available.
Group 4’s adjectives tell you something important about the noun. And they tell you something different if you hear them before or after the noun.
I mentioned before that the change in meaning with position goes from something literal to something literary. The literal option is the description that comes after the noun and the literary before the noun.
Let’s see some examples:
English: An old friend (who is very old).
Español: Un amigo viejo.
English: A longtime friend.
Español: Un viejo amigo.
English: A big story (long and maybe even boring).
Español: Una historia grande.
English: A great story (interesting or with lot’s of emotion).
Español: Una gran historia.
English: A poor person (without any money).
Español: Una persona pobre.
English: A miserable person (unfortunate or unhappy or a loser—typically someone we give sympathy to).
Español: Una pobre persona.
English: A big man (tall or possibly obese).
Español: Un hombre grande.
English: A great man (very charitable or distinguished).
Español: Un gran hombre.
English: A new car (brand new or modern).
Español: Un coche nuevo.
English: A new car (a change from the last one).
Español: Un nuevo coche.
This last example is the other answer the question I posed at the start of the post:
Un coche nuevo or un nuevo coche?
The answer: it depends on what you are trying to say.
Group 1 – Adjectives that must go after the noun
In this last group of adjectives is a type called adjetivos relacionales. They tell us something about type (eg. political), origin (eg. Australian) or form (e.g rectangular).
These adjectives get their name from the fact that they have a strong relationship with the noun. In fact, often, these types of adjectives are derived directly from a noun:
Política (politics) → Político (political).
Estudiante (student) → Estudiantil (student).
Comercio (commerce) → Comercial (commercial).
Madrid → Madrileño.
America → Americano.
Europa → Europeo.
Círculo (circle) → Circular (circular).
Amplitud (width) → Amplio (wide).
Juventud (youth) → Joven (young).
Here are some examples of these adjectives in action:
English: The student life.
Español: La vida estudiantil.
La estudiantil vida.
English: A valencian girl.
Español: Una chica valenciana.
Una valenciana chica.
English: A wide vocabulary.
Español: Un vocabulario amplio.
Un amplio vocabulario.
English: Young people.
Español: La gente joven.
La joven gente.
Adjetivos relacionales don’t have levels or grades of intensity. An Australian boy can’t be ‘very Australian’ (at least not in a literal sense). A good test to know if an adjective belongs to this group is to see if you can put ‘very’ in front of it. For example, una mesa muy rectangular (a very rectangular table) doesn’t make sense hence rectangular is in this group. Whereas una mesa muy roja is possible—a table that is more ‘intensely’ red than another—which means roja is not an adjetivo relacional.
The exceptions to the usual adjective rules
It wouldn’t be a good language learning topic if there wasn’t a solid assortment of exceptions. You have already seen some of the exceptions above. But here I’ll provide some structure (where possible).
Normal rule: Spanish adjectives don’t change spelling when moved to the front of the noun.
- This rule doesn’t apply to: uno, bueno, malo, alguno, ninguno, primero and tercero. These adjectives lose the letter ‘o’ when placed in front of a male noun.
English: Her third book.
Español: Su tercer libro.
English: Are there any problems?
Español: ¿Hay algún problema?
- This rule also doesn’t apply to cualquiera and grande. Both of these Spanish adjectives change when placed before the noun regardless of gender. For cualquiera you drop the ‘a’, for grande you drop the ‘de’. You’ve already seen examples above for grande. Here are two for cualquiera:
English: Any case.
Español: Cualquier caso.
English: Any word.
Español: Cualquier palabra.
Normal rule: Spanish adjectives normally match the gender of the noun.
- This rule doesn’t apply to: cada, rosa and violeta. These adjectives don’t change with gender. Also cada always comes before the noun.
English: A violet painting.
Español: Un cuadro violeta.
English: Each eye.
Español: Cada ojo.
Normal rule: Spanish adjectives that end in any letter other than ‘o’ don’t change spelling with gender.
- This rule doesn’t apply to adjectives that end in a consonant and are pronounced with the emphasis at the end of the word (agudas). It is common to see adjectives of origin such as español, francés or irlandés as these exceptions. You could also see adjectives that end in –dor such as encantador or corredor.
English: A Spanish boy. A Spanish girl.
Español: Un chico español. Una chica española.
English: An Irish boy. An Irish girl.
Español: Un chico irlandés. Una chica irlandesa.
English: A charming personality.
Español: Una personalidad encantadora.
Normal rule: Numbers normally don’t pluralise or change with gender.
- This rule doesn’t apply to numbers that end in an –uno such as uno, veintiuno and treinta y uno. These numbers don’t pluralise but do match the gender of female nouns. The number one hundred, ciento, shortens to cien before nouns and also pluralises and gender matches for multiple hundreds.
English: Thirty-one chairs.
Español: Treinta y una sillas.
English: Twenty-one years.
Español: Veintiún años.
English: One hundred dollars.
Español: Cien dolares.
English: Two hundred people.
Español: Doscientas personas.
English: Three hundred steps.
Español: Trescientos pasos.
Final bits and pieces
To finish off Spanish adjective theory you need a few more bits and pieces.
If you want to add emphasis by making a comparison or stating a superlative, the adjective has to come after the noun.
English: A smaller glass.
Español: Un vaso más pequeño.
Un más pequeño vaso.
English: A very interesting movie.
Español: Una película muy interesante.
Una muy interesante película.
English: A really good dinner.
Español: Una cena buenísima.
Una buenísima cena.
When you want to combine multiple adjectives, you have to place them after the noun with commas.
English: A big, beautiful, red flower.
Español: Una flor grande, bonita y roja.
English: A sweet, cold, strong drink.
Español: Una bebida dulce, fría y fuerte.
When you combine multiple nouns with one adjective, the adjective comes later in the sentence and takes the male form unless every noun is female.
English: The plates and cups are expensive.
Español: Los platos y las tazas son caros.
English: He has three sisters and two brothers and they are very nice.
Español: Él tiene tres hermanas y dos hermanos y son muy simpáticos.
English: The fruit and vegetables here are delicious.
Español: Las frutas y verduras aquí están ricas.
If you have made it this far, you’ll know that Spanish adjectives are a big topic. So, now why not take it one step further and put what you have learnt into action?
Make note of some of the examples from this guide and then apply them in your next Spanish conversation.
See if you can find some adjectives that I didn’t cover in the guide and ask a native how they modify the meaning of the noun.
If you discover something interesting, why not share it below?
Or, you can share something else you already know about Spanish adjectives that I didn’t cover above?