San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Spanish Adjectives Confound Beginners

Ours would be an awfully dull world if we didn’t have adjectives. Adjectives, words that describe or identify a person or thing – the beautiful troll, the syrupy pizza, the purple people-eater – are one of the primary means to beauty and color in language. Without adjectives, we would have very little poetry or inspiring literature.

Adiós, Shakespeare. Hasta luego, Robert Frost.

But adjectives are practical, as well.Without them, we might manage to communicate, but, like trying to give someone a Costa Rican address, we would need a long paragraph instead of a few words. Imagine: instead of saying “the tall man, not the short one,” we would have to resort to some gibberish like “man – head reaches middle of window, not man – head reaches bottom of window.” (Yes, because “the” and “whose” are also adjectives.)

All good things have their dark side. The fact that adjectives are so important to language means that you must learn not only the Spanish words that are adjectives, but also how to use them.

You’d think this would be easy. What harm can an innocent little adjective do in comparison with the formidable Spanish verb system? Unfortunately, adjectives in Spanish (and Italian, French, Portuguese, etc.) present yet another stumbling block among many others on the road to fluency in Spanish. But if you’re anything like Ginger Rogers, who could dance as well as Fred Astaire, only backwards and in high heels, you’ll get there.

There are two reasons English speakers have difficulties using adjectives in Spanish.

In both cases, the concepts are not at all difficult to understand; it is just so darn hard to remember to apply them.

In the first place, while in English we generally place adjectives in front of the noun we are describing – the capricious accountant – Spanish speakers put it after the noun they are describing – el contador caprichoso. They do this, that is, unless:

It is an article or demonstrative word or possessive: el, la, un, una, este, esta, mi, su, etc.

It is an expected or inseparable characteristic of the word described:

la pequeña pantalla (the small screen)

la Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty)

el Gran Gatsby (the Great Gatsby)

It is a number:

el cuarto hombre (the fourth man)

The placement of the adjective changes its meaning:

mi antigua casa (my former house)

mi casa antigua (my ancient house)

The intention is poetic:

la luminosa noche (the luminous night)

This last exception is interesting because we sometimes do the same thing, in reverse. We put the adjective after the noun to be poetic:

a star declining

a project disappointed

In the second place, the adjective must be in agreement with the noun. In the above example, caprichoso is masculine and singular, like contador. If we were to talk of a mariposa (butterfly), however, we would have to say la mariposa caprichosa, so that the adjective is feminine and singular. If we had more than one butterfly, however, we would have to say las mariposas caprichosas, so that the adjective is feminine and plural. In English, whether we have an accountant, a butterfly or a whole army of butterflies, they are always just capricious, that is, if we are inclined to use such a word.

As if all this weren’t confusing enough, Spanish adjectives that end in e or in a consonant change when there is a plural:

el contador indigente (indigent); los contadores indigentes

la mariposa indigente; las mariposas indigentes

el contador fatal; los contadores fatales

la mariposa fatal; las mariposas fatales

It really gets sticky when you need to use one adjective with more than one noun, and beginners should try to avoid this mess:

la gata y el perro callejeros (the stray cat and dog)

Finally, Spanish speakers have a nifty trick. They can take an adjective and use it as a noun:

Me gusta la roja. (I like the red one.)

El pobre sufre mucho. (The poor man suffers a lot.)

If, by now, you’re thinking that Spanish makes English look like a country bumpkin in its simplicity, don’t worry. We can do an adjective maneuver in English that Spanish speakers can never, ever (ha ha!) do.We can take a noun, put it in front of another noun, and make an adjective out of it (city park, math class, geography teacher), thereby economizing a bunch of small words.

Well, it’s better than nothing.


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