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Understanding Word Order
If you understand the rules of gender and number agreement in Spanish and are confident that you can make the articles and adjectives associated with a Spanish noun agree with it in gender and number, then you are ready to fine-tune a few notions about word order. This fine-tuning focuses on what happens in a noun phrase, typically comprised of an article, a noun and an adjective, in that order. But there is more to the subject than that.
First, let’s consider the different placement of descriptive adjectives and quantitative adjectives.
Descriptive adjectives follow nouns and quantitative adjectives precede the noun. Descriptive adjectives have to do with the qualities of the noun they modify, colors being the easiest and best example. Quantitative adjectives are those that have anything to do with number, such as muchos (many, lots), algunos, unos, or pocos (some or a few), tres (three), primer (first). One comment about primer: its full form is primero (in the masculine) which must be shortened to primer before a singular masculine noun. The feminine form, primera, does not shorten, regardless of its position relative to the noun it modifies.
If a descriptive and a quantitative adjective both modify a noun, the article comes first, as always, followed by the quantitative adjective, and then the noun and the descriptive adjective last. Thus, if you want to say the five red roses, you would need to say las cinco rosas rojas. Notice that cardinal numbers have no gender.
In addition, there are three high-frequency adjectives in Spanish that are not quantitative adjectives, but whose placement with respect to the noun changes their meaning. They are: grande (abbreviated to gran when it is placed before any noun, just as primero shortens to primer before a singular masculine one), pobre and nuevo.These three adjectives require two examples each in order to show how they change meaning when placed either after the noun or before. First, please observe that they are descriptive adjectives – there is nothing that can change that, but as you will see, there is a way to classify what happens to them when they move in front of the noun.
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Here are our examples. See if you can see any pattern in how the adjectives change meaning by position:
el hombre grande = the large man
el gran hombre = the great man
la niña pobre = the poor girl [that is with no money]
la pobre niña = the unfortunate girl
el carro nuevo = the new car [off the new-cars’ sales lot]
el nuevo carro = the new car [for you, perhaps; it could be brand new or used]
When the descriptive adjectives in the preceding examples are placed after the nouns, their meaning is literal, but when they are placed before the noun, they take on a figurative meaning.
With some vocabulary for dealing with colors, quantities (numbers, ordinal and cardinal) as well as adjectives about quantity, such as muchos, as you read above, you’ll be able to master the handful of patterns of word placement within Spanish noun phrases.