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Where to place the adjective: before or after the noun? (Level A-B)


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

1) Adjectives with basic meaning

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

Adjective Meaning
beau (belle) good-looking, beautiful, fine
bon (bonne) good
bref (brève) brief
grand large
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

2) 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:

Adjective Meaning
affreux-euse awful, terrible
excellent(e) excellent
horrible horrible, terrible
vaste huge, 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.

3) Functional adjectives

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

Adjective Meaning
autre other
même(s) same
(de) nombreux … numerous …
divers(es) … various …, miscellaneous …
plusieurs … several …
premiersecondavant-dernierderniertroisièmequatrièmeetc (Ordinal numbers)
doubletriple erm… 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 mêmela 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:

Adjective Meaning before the noun Meaning after the noun
ancien former, ex- old, ancient
brave* fine, amiable brave, courageous
certain certain (in sense of ‘particular’) sure, certain
cher dear, true expensive
curieux* strange inquisitive
gros big fat
pauvre poor (in sense of ‘wretched’) poor (in sense of ‘not rich’)
propre own clean
pure pure, simple, plain pure, unaltered
seul only, sole lonely

(*) 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 curieuseces 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:

Adjective Typical translation before the noun Typical translation after the noun
jeune young younger, not old
méchant unpleasant, nasty (affair) unpleasant, badly-behaved (child, dog)
possible possible, potential possible, feasible
rare rare, precious rare, infrequent
sale unpleasant, nasty, rotten (e.g. “a nasty affair”) dirty (as in clothes)
simple simple, pure (e.g. “a simple question of…”) simple, not complex
véritable real, serious real, genuine
vrai real, serious real, 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

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:

Adjective Basic meaning (before noun) Informal meaning (after noun)
fameux famous, infamous top-notch, first-rate
terrible terrible, awful great

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 adjective Examples Notable exceptions
Colour adjectives rougenoir,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,fatiguéâgé,contaminé … Figurative participles that don’t denote an action are good candidates for putting before the noun: une puissante idéela troublante notion de …
Adjectives denoting shape or physical characteristics rectangulaire,rond,circulaire,carré …
Adjectives denoting category or classification Une danse ecossaise, les sciences physiques
Adjectives longer than noun Une histoire extraordinaire, un jour interminable
Adjectives that indicates a relation Le pays natal, le lait maternel
Past and Present participles use as adjectives Une rue passante, un village abandonné

 Exercise 1

Lisez le texte suivant et identifiez la position et le sens des adjectifs

Souvenir d’un préfet

Un ancien préfet se souvient. Je vais vous raconter une histoire vraie. Aujourd’hui c’est une histoire drôle mais à l’époque cela était une drôle d’histoire. Le général De Gaule était un grand homme, mais c’était aussi un homme grand. Quand il est venu en visite dans notre département et qu’il a logé à la préfecture nous nous sommes aperçu, la veille de son arrivée, qu’aucun lit n’était à sa taille.

C’était une vraie catastrophe! Le malheureux général allait-il devoir dormir replié sur lui-même? A cette idée ma femme était très malheureuse. La situation était nouvelle pour nous. Heureusement un menuisier a réussi à fabriquer un nouveau lit en une nuit!

 

Exercise 2

Ecrivez un exemple de phrase utilisant les adjectifs suivants et expliquez s’ils doivent être placés avant ou après le nom (ou les deux), et leur signification dans chaque cas.

ancien, brave, américain, cher, chic, curieux,  horrible, certain, drôle, grand, jeune, nul, pauvre, petit, seul, sale, paternel.

Exemple: C’est une sale affaire (une affaire fâcheuse);  Jean a les mains sales (ses mains ne sont pas propres)

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