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Position of French Adjectives

Place des adjectifs


In English, adjectives virtually always precede the nouns they modify: a blue car, a big house. In French, adjectives may be placed before or after the noun, depending on their type and meaning. This concept can be aggravating for French learners, but with patience and practice you'll be able to describe to your heart's content. The following explanations should cover about 95% of adjectives, but, alas, there are always some exceptions.

1. Placement after the noun
Most descriptive adjectives are placed after the noun they modify. These normally have an analytical meaning, in that they classify the noun into a certain category. These types of adjectives include shape, color, taste, nationality, religion, social class, and other adjectives that describe things like personality and mood.

   une table ronde - round table
   un livre noir - black book
   du thé sucré - sweet tea
   une femme américaine - American woman
   une église catholique - Catholic church
   une famille bourgeoise - middle-class family

In addition, present participles and past participles used as adjectives are always placed after the noun.

   une histoire intéressante - interesting story
   un débat passionné - lively debate

2. Placement before the noun
Certain adjectives are placed before the noun, some which you can memorize with the acronym "BAGS":

   Good and bad
   Size (except for grand with people - see 3, below)

These descriptors - and a few others - are considered inherent qualities of the noun:

   une jolie fille - pretty girl
   un jeune homme - young man
   une nouvelle maison - new house
   un bon enfant - good child
   un petit problème - small problem
   les sincères condoléances - sincere condolences
   les vagues promesses - vague promises
   un gentil garçon - kind boy

In addition, all non-descriptive (i.e., demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, negative, and possessive) adjectives are placed before the noun:

   ces livres - these books
   chaque personne - each person
   quel stylo ? - which pen?
   aucune femme - no woman
   mon enfant - my child

3. Placement depends on meaning
Some adjectives have both a figurative and an analytic (literal) sense and can thus be placed on either side of the noun. When the adjective is figurative, it goes before the noun, and when it's analytic, it goes after the noun.

Figurative:  mes vertes années   my green (fruitful) years
Literal:  des légumes verts   green vegetables

Figurative:  un grand homme   a great man
Literal:  un homme grand   a tall man

Figurative:  un triste individu   a sad (mean or bad) person
Literal:  un individu triste   a sad (crying) person

Figurative:  mon ancienne école   my old (former) school
Literal:  mon école ancienne   my old (aged) school

Figurative:  un certain regard   a certain (type of) look
Literal:  une victoire certaine   a certain (assured) victory

More: Fickle French Adjectives

Quiz: Position of French adjectives
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