Adjectives in Spanish


Reminder: The principal function of adjectives is to modify or otherwise describe nouns. Therefore, the number (singular or plural) and the gender (masculine or feminine) of an adjective depends on the noun involved. As you know, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with the concept of male vs. female but is rather the result of centuries of grammatical and spelling conventions.

  1. Forms:

    1. Regular adjectives (four forms: -o, -a, -os, -as). Most adjectives have both masculine and feminine, singular and plural forms: the “masculine” vowel is -o, and the “feminine” one is -a. An -s is added to either vowel to form the plural.

      un libro nuevo a new book (masculine singular)
      dos libros nuevos two new books (masculine plural)
       
      una mesa nueva a new table (feminine singular)
      dos mesas nuevas two new tables (feminine plural)

    2. Adjectives with two forms. These adjectives usually end in an -e, in -ista, or in a consonant in the singular form; they use the same form for both masculine and feminine forms. To form the plural, add an -s if the singular ends in an unstressed vowel, or -es if it ends in a consonant or í or ú.

      un libro interesante an interesting book (singular)
      dos libros interesantes two interesting books (plural)
       
      una obra difícil a difficult work (singular)
      dos obras difíciles two difficult works (plural)

    3. Adjectives with special feminine forms. Adjectives of nationality whose masculine singular form ends in a consonant and adjectives ending in -dor have feminine forms ending in -a and -as.

      un libro español* a Spanish book (masculine singular)
      dos libros españoles two Spanish books (masculine plural)
       
      una obra española a Spanish work (feminine singular)
      dos obras españolas two Spanish works (feminine plural)

      *Note the distinction between un libro español (= a book from Spain) and un libro de español (= a book about the Spanish language).

      Some other adjectives of nationality which end in a consonant include: alemán (German), escocés (Scottish), francés (French), holandés (Dutch), inglés (English), and portugués (Portuguese). Note that adjectives ending in -ense do not have special feminine forms: la(s) estadounidense(s), la(s) canadiense(s).

      Adjectives which end in -dor in the masculine singular likewise have feminine forms with -a:

      hablador, habladora, habladores, habladoras  talkative

    4. Adjectives with shortened or contracted forms. Several adjectives are somewhat analogous to the indefinite article un and have a special form used when the adjective precedes a masculine singular noun:

      alguno: algún alguna algunos algunas some, any
      ninguno: ningún ninguna (ningunos ningunas) no, none
      primero: primer primera primeros primeras first
      tercero: tercer tercera tercero terceras third
      bueno: buen buena buenos buenas good

      ¿Hay algún estudiante aquí que sea buen jugador? Is there any student here who is a good player?

      However, if the adjective occurs anywhere other than immediately before a masculine singular noun, the long form is used:

      No vi hombre alguno allí. I didn't see a single man there.
      Es un libro muy bueno. It's a very good book.
      ¡Buena idea! Good idea!

      Note that ninguno is normally used in the singular unless the noun modified is used exclusively in the plural.

      No hay ningún comunista aquí. There aren't any Communists here.

      Special cases:

      1. The word grande is shortened to gran before a singular noun, even a feminine noun:

        Es una gran idea. It's a great idea.

      2. Santo when used to mean “Saint” before male's name, is shortened to San unless the name begins with a To- or Do-:

        San Pedro Saint Peter
        San Francisco Saint Francis
        Santo Tomás Saint Thomas
        Santo Domingo Saint Dominic

    5. Demonstrative adjectives are used instead of articles to “point out” nouns in terms of their physical relationship to the speaker: este/esta/estos/estas (this or these, for things near the speaker), ese/esa/esos/esas (that or those, for items somewhat further from the speaker, or close to the person spoken to), and aquel/aquella/aquellos/aquellas (that or those for items in the distance). NOTE THAT THE MASCULINE SINGULAR FORMS END IN AN -e OR A CONSONANT, NOT AN -o. [See also: Demonstratives: How to remember the difference between “este” and “ese”.]

      En aquel instante este chico hablaba con esas mujeres. At that instant this boy was talking with those women.

      Note: The demonstratives —particularly ese— are sometimes placed after the noun for a pejorative effect.

      No me gusta el libro ese. I don't like that (worthless) book.

      Note: Pronouns can be created from these forms. These pronouns are identified by a written accent mark over the stressed syllable for masculine and feminine forms to distinguish them from the adjective forms (for example, éste, ésta, éstos, éstas. The neuter forms (esto, eso, aquello) are not written with accent marks since there is no corresponding adjective to be confused with .

      ¿Qué es eso que tienes en la mano? What is that you have in your hand?
      Aquello que nos dijeron es rídiculo. That (stuff) they told us is ridiculous.

    6. Possessive adjectives can be divided into two groups: the non-stressed and the stressed forms.

      1. The non-stressed possessives are only used in front of nouns. The forms are: mi(s), tu(s), su(s), nuestro(s), vuestro(s), su(s).They must agree in number (and in gender for nuestro and vuestro) with the noun, not the person or pronoun to which the refer: mis libros, nuestra madre. Remember that su(s) is ambiguous; su casa = your [usted] house, his house, her house, its house, your [ustedes] house, their [male and/or female] house.

        A mi gato no le gustan tus perros. My cat doesn't like your dogs.
        Sus caballos arruinaron nuestras flores. Your [formal] / his / her / their horses ruined our flowers.

      2. The stressed possessives are mío, tuyo, suyo, nuestro, vuestro, and suyo. They used after nouns or by themselves or can be used with articles as pronouns:

        Ésa es la casa mía.   That is my house. [Or: That's the house that belongs to me.]
        Esa casa es mía. That house is mine.
        Mi casa es más grande que la tuya. My house is larger than yours.

      3. Note that the forms su and suyo are ambiguous and for clarity or emphasis sake may be replaced by the expressions de usted, de él, de ella, de ustedes, de ellas, and de ellos. For example:

        La casa de él es roja, pero la de ella es blanca.   His house is red, but hers is white.
        (Su casa es roja pero la suya es blanca.) (Virtually meaningless.)

    7. Cardinal numerals. Cardinal numbers or numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) may be used as adjectives or pronouns. The most common ones are:

      0 cero   10 diez   20 veinte   30 treinta
      1 un, uno, una 11 once 21 veintiuno/a 31 treinta y uno/a
      2 dos 12 doce 22 veintidós 32 treinta y dos
      3 tres 13 trece 23 veintitrés 33 treinta y tres
      4 cuatro 14 catorce 24 veinticuatro 34 treinta y cuatro
      5 cinco 15 quince 25 veinticinco 35 treinta y cinco
      6 seis 16 dieciséis 26 veintiséis 36 treinta y seis
      7 siete 17 diecisiete 27 veintisiete 37 treinta y siete
      8 ocho 18 dieciocho 28 veintiocho 38 treinta y ocho
      9 nueve 19 diecinueve 29 veintinueve 39 treinta y nueve

      40 cuarenta 100 cien/ciento 700 setecientos 1.000.000 un millón
      50 cincuenta 200 doscientos 800 ochocientos 2.000.000 dos millones
      60 sesenta 300 trescientos 900 novecientos
      70 setenta 400 cuatrocientos 1000 mil
      80 ochenta 500 quinientos 1001 mil uno
      90 noventa 600 seiscientos 2000 dos mil

      Note:

      1. Three-word forms also exist for most numbers between 16 and 29: diez y seis, veinte y tres.
      2. Numbers such as 1999 must be expressed as mil novecientos noventa y nueve (not nineteen hundred ninety-nine).
      3. Numbers ending in “one” have feminine singular forms when used with feminine nouns: veintiuna mujeres, cincuenta y una pesetas.
      4. NEVER USE *un mil.
      5. De is used between millón and a noun being counted: un millón de dólares, cien millones de habitantes.
      6. In writing out Spanish numerals, commas are used were we use periods in English, and periods instead of commas: 1.240,5 (= 1,240.5).

    8. Ordinal numbers indicate the order in which something occurs (first, second, etc). There are forms form almost all numerals, but in normal practice all you will use are the forms for the numbers one through ten. Remember that these are adjectives and agree with the noun modified. The forms primer and tercer are used only before masculine singular nouns.

      primer, primero         sexto
      segundo séptimo
      tercer, tercero octavo
      cuarto noveno
      5°  quinta 10°  décimo

      Ésta es mi primera clase universitaria. This is my first college class.
      No puedo entender el tercer párrafo. I can't understand the third paragraph.

      Note that we used after names such as “Charles the Fifth”, the word “the” is not used before the ordinal: Carlos V = Carlos Quinto; Felipe II = Felipe Segundo.

  2. Position of adjectives. Depending on the type of adjective and the context, it may occur either before or after the noun it modifies. Most frequently, adjectives follow the noun unless they are limiting adjectives or used metaphorically or modify a noun which is one-unique.

    1. Limiting adjectives (adjetivos determinativos) are normally are placed in front of the noun. These include adjectives which indicate quantity [e.g., mucho(s), poco(s), cuanto(s), todo(s), dos, etc.], articles (el, la, un, una, etc.), unstressed possessives (mi, tu, su, etc.), demonstratives (este, ese, aquel, etc.), and moral qualifiers (buen, mal, etc. if not preceded by adverbial modifiers such as muy) and particularly the comparative/ superlative forms such as mejor, peor):

      Pocos mexicanos han leído mis libros. Few Mexicans have read my books.
      Estos regalos son para los mejores niños. These gifts are for the best children.
      Todas las chicas son alumnas muy buenas. All the girls are very good students.

    2. Descriptive adjectives (adjetivos calificativos). Adjectives which describe nouns —giving characteristics, for example color and size— normally are placed after the noun.

      ¿Puedes prestarme tu falda roja? Can you loan me your red skirt?
      El chico alto es mi sobrino. The tall boy is my nephew.
      Los estudiantes brillantes salieron bien en los exámenes. The brilliant students did well on the tests. (The others didn't do so well.)

      It's important to realize that the final (or last or post-) position in Spanish is generally the position reserved for the element which is the most stressed or most important or most distinctive; when an adjective occurs in the post-position it has the effect of distinguishing the noun involved from other such nouns. In the the last sentence given above the phrase estudiantes brillantes occurs, with brillantes in the post-position. This implies a contrast with other estudiantes which are not brillantes (and the sentence then implies that the not-so-brilliant students did not do so well on the test). In contrast, if we wish to indicate that ALL the students were brilliant (and hence all did well on the test), or if we want to characterize the entire group as being brilliant, we would place the adjective before the noun:

      Los brillantes estudiantes salieron bien en los exámenes. The brilliant students did well on the tests. [That is, (all) the students —all of whom were brilliant— did well.]

      Note that when a given noun is unique or one-of-a-kind, the post-position in normally required for adjectives:

      Mi esposa hermosa My beautiful wife: I have more than one wife; I'm referring to the one who is beautiful.
      Mi hermosa esposa My beautiful wife: I only have one wife, and she is beautiful.

      Several descriptive adjectives change their meaning depending on whether they are used before or after the noun:

      before after
      antiguo former, ex- ancient, old
      gran, grande great big, large
      medio half (a) average
      nuevo new, different (brand) new
      pobre poor, unfortunate poor, penniless
      puro pure (just, merely, all) pure (clean, uncontaminated)
      viejo old, long-standing old (in age), elderly
      único only unique

      Examples:

      mi antiguo maestro my former teacher
      mi maestro antiguo my ancient teacher
       
      un gran presidente a great president
      un president grande a big president (large man)
       
      media botella half a bottle
      una botella media an average bottle
       
      mi nueva casa my new house [we just moved into an old house, but it's new or different for us]
      mi casa nueva my brand-new house
       
      una pobre mujer an poor (unfortunate) woman
      una mujer pobre a poor (penniless) woman
       
      pura leche mere (or just) milk [for example, not alcohol]
      leche pura pure ( or uncontaminated) milk
       
      un viejo amigo an old (long-standing) friend
      un amigo viejo an old (elderly) friend
       
      el único ejemplo the only example
      un ejemplo único a unique example

[Practice]

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Contact: Fred F. Jehle

Home: http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/

Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne
Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA

URL: http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/courses/adject.htm