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French Attributive Adjectives

Adjectifs épithètes

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Attributive adjectives are used to describe or emphasize some attribute (characteristic) of the noun they modify. Known as épithètes in French, attributive adjectives are a subcategory of qualifying (descriptive) adjectives. The defining characteristic of attributive adjectives is that they are joined to the noun they modify - immediately preceding or following it with no verb in between.

   une jeune fille   young girl
   un nouveau livre   new book
   une question intéressante   interesting question
   un restaurant célèbre   famous restaurant

An attributive adjective emphasizes some aspect of the noun which is essential to the meaning of the noun but not necessarily to the sentence. That is, the épithète can be dropped without changing the essential meaning of the sentence:

   J'ai acheté un nouveau livre rouge
    > J'ai acheté un nouveau livre
     > J'ai acheté un livre


Both nouveau and rouge are attributive adjectives, and both can be dropped without hurting the essential meaning of the sentence: I bought a book. Including new and red simply provides additional information about the book that I bought.


Types

There are three types of attributive adjectives:

1. Épithète de nature - indicates a permanent, inherent quality

   un pâle visage - pale face
   une pomme rouge - red apple

2. Épithète de caractère - describes an individual, distinguishing quality

   un cher ami - dear friend
   un homme honnête - honest man

3. Épithète de circonstance - expresses a temporary, current quality

   une jeune fille - young girl
   un garçon triste - sad boy


Agreement

Attributive adjectives must agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify.


Placement

Like all descriptive French adjectives, the majority of épithètes follow the noun they modify. However, épithètes precede the noun when
  • the adjective + noun is considered a single unit of meaning
  • the adjective is describing rather than qualifying (limiting) the meaning of the noun
  • it just "sounds better"
As you can see, there are no hard and fast rules for determining whether an épithète should precede or follow the noun it modifies, but there are some general guidelines that can help:

Precede the noun Follow the noun
Épithètes de nature vs      Épithètes de circonstance
Figurative or subjective meaning vs Literal or objective meaning
(see fickle French adjectives)
Size and beauty
(petit, grand, joli...)
vs Other physical qualities
(rouge, carré, costaud...)
Single-syllable adjective +
multi-syllable noun
vs Multi-syllable adjective +
single-syllable noun
Ordinal adjectives
(premier, deuxième...)
  Categories + relationships
(chrétien, français, essentiel...)
Age
(jeune, vieux, nouveau...)
Present participles and past participles
used as adjectives (courant, lu...)
Goodness
(bon, mauvais...)
Modified adjectives
(un raisin grand comme un abricot)
  
For more information, see my lesson on the position of French adjectives.
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