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Do I put the adjective before or after the noun?

In English, the adjective normally goes before the noun, and only goes after it when part of a longer adjective phrase. So we wouldn't say a house big, although we would say a house so big you'd be jealous. There are just a handful of cases where we might argue that we have an adjective following the noun1:

there were books galore
a father with children is a father proud
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In French, things are the other way round. The normal place for an adjective is generally after the noun:

j'ai une voiture rouge
I have a red car
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However, things are less clear-cut in French than English. Although it is usual for an adjective to follow the noun, both positions are possible. In general:

  • the 'default' place for the adjective is after the noun;
  • certain 'basic' or 'functional' adjectives go before the noun;
  • certain adjectives change their meaning or emphasis depending on whether they're before or after the noun.

Adjectives that go before the noun

Adjectives with basic meaning

The following adjectives generally go before the noun. Note that they're generally very common adjectives with basic meanings:

AdjectiveMeaning
beau (belle)good-looking, beautiful, fine
bon (bonne)good
bref (brève)brief
grandlarge
haut(e)high, tall
joli(e)pretty
mauvais(e)bad, wrong
nouveau (nouvelle)new
petit(e)small
vieux (vieille)old

If there's no other reason to put them after the noun (see below), then the normal place is before the noun:

c'est un très bon prof
he's a very good teacher
c'est une belle maison
it's a nice house
il y a une haute colline derrière la forêt
there's a tall hill behind the forest
elle a une grande maison
she has a large house
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Emphatic adjectives

A few adjectives with an 'emphatic' or 'superlative' meaning tend to go before the noun. If we take the view that the default place for an adjective is after the noun but that it can be before the noun for emphasis, then we might argue that these adjectives tend to end up before the noun 'by accident'. Examples include:

AdjectiveMeaning
affreux, -euseawful, terrible
excellent(e)excellent
horriblehorrible, terrible
vastehuge, vast

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. It should be noted that this category is less clear-cut than the previous one: it is certainly possible and common to put any of these adjectives after the noun. Whereas an adjective like beau only occurs after the noun under special circumstances, often syntactic, there is freer variation between un horrible accident versus un accident horrible.

Functional adjectives

The following adjectives have more of a 'functional' than 'descriptive' purpose and also go before the noun:

AdjectiveMeaning
autreother
même(s)same
(de) nombreux ...numerous ...
divers(es) ...various ..., miscellaneous ...
plusieurs ...several ...
premier, second, avant-dernier, dernier, troisième, quatrième etc(Ordinal numbers)
double, tripleerm... double, triple

In a more formal analysis, at least some of these would be classed as quantifiers rather than adjectives (and this dictates that they come before the noun). We won't worry about that distinction here.

There are cases where these adjectives go after the noun: ce jour même, la semaine dernière... But generally they can be considered exceptions or set expressions.

Adjectives with a different meaning before and after the noun

The following adjectives seem clear-cut cases where the meaning is different before and after the noun:

AdjectiveMeaning before the nounMeaning after the noun
ancienformer, ex-old, ancient
brave*fine, amiablebrave, courageous
certaincertain (in sense of 'particular')sure, certain
cherdear, trueexpensive
curieux*strangeinquisitive
grosbigfat
pauvrepoor (in sense of 'wretched')poor (in sense of 'not rich')
propreownclean
purepure, simple, plainpure, unaltered
seulonly, solelonely

(*) Note that curieux can occasionally be put after the noun with the meaning of 'strange', whilst brave is occasionally used before the noun with the sense of 'brave'. (e.g. une histoire curieuse, ces braves chevaliers).

As mentioned above, most adjectives can come before the noun for emphasis or to give them a more figurative sense. And there are some adjectives that, because of their meaning, are good candidates for using emphatically or figuratively. In some of these cases, the shift in emphasis tends to give a different translation before the noun than after the noun, but it's arguable whether the distinction in meaning is as clear cut as in the adjectives above:

AdjectiveTypical translation before the nounTypical translation after the noun
jeuneyoungyounger, not old
méchantunpleasant, nasty (affair)unpleasant, badly-behaved (child, dog)
possiblepossible, potentialpossible, feasible
rarerare, preciousrare, infrequent
saleunpleasant, nasty, rotten (e.g. "a nasty affair")dirty (as in clothes)
simplesimple, pure (e.g. "a simple question of...")simple, not complex
véritablereal, seriousreal, genuine
vraireal, seriousreal, true

To get an idea of how these adjectives differ before and after the noun, here are some examples:

c'est une sale histoire
It's a nasty business
tu as du linge sale à laver?
do you have any laundry to do? (lit. "dirty clothes to wash")
ce jeune homme m'a aidé
this young man helped me (e.g. a teenager)
c'est toujours un homme jeune
he's still a young man (i.e. not necessarily a teeneger, but not an old man yet)
le simple fait que tu puisses...
the simple fact that you are able to...
c'est un système simple
it's a simple system
c'est un des rares moments où je puisse me détendre
it's one of the few precious moments when I can relax
c'est un ingrédient rare
it's a rare ingredient, it's an unusual ingredient
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The following adjectives have developed informal meanings that diverge from their 'basic' meaning. The informal meaning tends to hold only when the adjective comes after the noun:

AdjectiveBasic meaning (before noun)Informal meaning (after noun)
fameuxfamous, infamoustop-notch, first-rate
terribleterrible, awfulgreat

Adjectives that go after the noun

We have said that adjectives that normally follow the noun can go before the noun for emphasis. In fact, there are a few types of adjectives that tend never to be used before the noun. These are:

Class of adjectiveExamplesNotable exceptions
Colour adjectivesrouge, noir, rose ...(Certain colour adjectives used in figurative sense: une rouge colère)
"Political" adjectives (nationality, sexuality, political persuasion, religion...)catholique, belge, bisexuel ...--
Participles (derived from verbs, ending in -ant or )fatigant, fatigué, âgé, contaminé ...Figurative participles that don't denote an action are good candidates for putting before the noun: une puissante idée, la troublante notion de ...
Adjectives denoting shaperectangulaire, rond, circulaire, carré ...--

1. Technical note: we're going to talk a lot about the adjective preceding or following the noun. But there is another point of view, namely that what we see as the adjective coming after the noun is actually the noun coming before the adjective. It sounds an odd point to make, but there are some theories of syntax whereby the word order that we hear is derived from some underlying surface order, so the distinction of "which is derived from which" does actually make sense.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2012. All rights reserved.