I just finished reading The Atoms of Language. The gist is that languages have parameters, one of which will tell you which side of a phrase to add a new word.

But in some languages, like French and Spanish, adjectives sometimes precede and sometimes follow the noun they modify. And the meaning of the adjective varies according to that order. How can this be explained within the parameters theory?

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    In Portuguese, some adjectives can come before or after the noun, as well, but with different meanings. Um grande homem means "a great man". Um homem grande means "a big man". Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 15:39
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    Easy. Since parameters are posited theoretical entities, they can be anything. How about the following: Some languages have variable parameters. Or some languages are in the process of changing parameters, and this frees the parametrized phenomena for opportunistic communicational use. Or parameters apply to individuals' grammars rather than the language as a whole (which doesn't really exist outside the speakers' minds, after all), and there's invididual variation.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 17:51
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    @MatthewMartin: I'd really rather not. I was actually trying to see whether I could show how arbitrary and non-explanatory the theory was without actually saying so. I guess I may have succeeded, but I wouldn't want to put that out as an answer. Let those who keep up with the latest fashions do so.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 21:50
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    I'm not worried about votes. But talking about which generative theories are hot vs. which generative theories actually work (practically none) is too much like talking about Obamacare to a Republican.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:39
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    @jlawler, the fact is that all speakers of these language will use both orders. So it is unlikely some speakers have one, and others have another. Second, the change-in-progress possibility is unlikely because this alternation has been and is stable, as far as I know (at least in Spanish). I second Otavio that these adjectives mean different things depending on position, i.e. they could be treated as different words which happen to be homophonous. Regardless of your view of the parameters theory, these are not actual counter-arguments to the theory, or multiple viable hypotheses.
    – user325
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 22:05

3 Answers 3


In French, adjectives have been used in both orders for at least 250 years, with similar meaning differences as observed today.

Since almost all adjectives in French can appear in both positions, it is not a good hypothesis to treat them all as homophonous words. It is also not a good idea to account for the possibility of two orders in French by assuming that N moves between the two ADJs, whereas it doesn't in English: this just restates the facts, and fails to account for the mirror order of French postnominal ADJs and English prenominal ADJs as in "un vase chinois bleu", and "a Chinese blue vase".

The analysis I propose accounts for a lot of details, so it cannot be exposed in a 30 second jingle here. I don't say that order changes the semantics of the adjectives, but rather that ADJs in the two positions modify different elements of the N (a different form/order corresponds to a different meaning): a French postnominal ADJ modifies the whole semantics of the N whereas a prenominal ADJ modifies a subelement of the N. For example, in "une église ancienne" the ADJ bears on the whole N, hence the meaning of a church that is old; but in "une ancienne église" the ADJ only bears on the time interval in the semantics of the N, hence the meaning of something that had the characteristics of a church at some time in the past (but doesn't anymore). In English, nouns are introduced in syntax with Number, so the only postnominal ADJs are from a very restricted class that can modify the complex N+NUM.

French ADJs are often claimed to be predominantly postnominal. The claim is unclear. As a first impression, there is a greater number of different ADJs that occur in postnominal position than in prenominal position. But ADJs that are typically prenominal tend to have much higher frequency of use than any particular postnominal ADJ. Since there are many more individual ADJs that are postnominal, on the whole, occurrences of postnominal ADJs outnumber occurrences of prenominal ADJs by a margin of about two to one. The higher percentage of occurrences of ADJs in postnominal position and the greater diversity of ADJs appearing postnominally are probably the reason why postnominal placement of ADJs is often assumed to be the “normal” surface position for ADJs in Romance languages. The foregoing discussion should make it clear that this assumption of a “normal” position does not reflect a linguistically valid property.

Moreover, almost all ADJs can appear in either position in French. It"s just that some resulting meanings are pragmatically less likely to correspond to some world situation, so they occur infrequently. But pragmatic likeliness is not a measure of grammaticality.

  • I am not satisfied and disagree with your answer. The example you provide hinges on the multiple meanings of ancien, meaning "old" in one case and "former" in the second. Although the second meaning of the adjective could not occur post-nominally, the former can occur in both positions. For instance Notre Dame est une ancienne cathédrale, does not mean its cathedral-hood is not true any more. Not all adjectives bear different meanings depending on their position. I would also like to see the stats you based your answer upon. Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 11:39
  • @Benjamin, I'm french native speaker... and when I say to myself "une ancienne cathédrale" I clearly feel the sense that it is no longer a cathedral, as if it was modified into another monument, a museum for example. Commented Aug 24, 2012 at 10:36
  • @StephaneRolland: I am also native speaker and I know what you mean. Probably the pre-nominal usage is more common in the sense of "former" but it is equally valid, as with the sentence i provided as an example. Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 21:45

I'm not entirely sure what exactly you're interested in:

  1. differences in the Adj+N order between English vs. French;
  2. differences in French between Adj+N (less common) vs. N+Adj (predominant);
  3. differences in French involving homonymous adjectives (grand, ancien, pauvre etc.)

In the GB framework, at its late stage, variation in the Adj+N order was explained by the strength of the Num-head. In English, Num is a weak head and, thus, no movement occurs. In some/all (?) Romance languages, Num is a strong head and it makes N move to Num. Some evidence that might support that analysis: in some Romance languages, adjectives express number (unlike in English). Also Cinque 1994 proposed that "different types of adjectives serve as specifiers to different types of head" (Radford 2004: 179). So, that's the GB framework.

Denis Bouchard has consistently argued that in French there is a difference in semantics between Adj+N and N+Adj (e.g. homonymous "grand" as in ce grand homme 'this great man' vs. "grand" as in cet homme grand 'this tall man'); see, for example, Bouchard 1998 or Bouchard 2002. His proposal is that variation in the Adj+N order is caused by "choices" languages employ to express Number (D or N). Laenzlinger 2000 is also a very good paper. By the way, I would read Baker's book with a degree of healthy scepticism; see, for example, Larry Trask's review

I would like to post a very important quote re: parameters and Minimalist Program from Gallego 2011 (The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Minimalism): "Minimalism is probably not the best framework to investigate parameters [...]. The early P&P thesis that variation is encoded in the syntax [...] must be abandoned [...]." I'm afraid that The atoms of language reflects old-fashioned ideas of the P&P framework, popular in the 1980s-early 90s.

NB: A reply to Mitch's last question

(too long for posting as a comment)

Ok, I'll try to explain it in a simpler way. Since the question was about parameters, the implication is that the answer should be couched in generative syntax (its version popular in the 1980s). The basic tenet of generative syntax is that constituents are organized hierarchically. If you take A and B and put them together (Merge), one of them will be the head and the other its dependent . The head determines the morphosyntactic properties of the whole phrase {AB}; in other words, if A is the head and it is a noun, then the whole phrase {AB} will be a noun. In generative syntax functional heads are posited, too (besides obvious lexical heads). Functional heads may express tense (T), finiteness, mood, senternce function (interrogative, affirmative - C), negation (Neg) etc- there is a lot of variation there. They may be overtly expressed (like the past tense in English -ed) or covertly expressed (e.g., accusative on object NPs). Heads can be strong (trigger movement) or weak (don't trigger movement). Since they wanted to explain why adjectives can be used before as well as after nouns in some languages, they suggested there should be some functional head (between prenominal and postnominal adjectives) where a noun moves to. I don't remember who proposed it was the Num-head (Andrew Radford says it's Picallo 1991 and Ritter 1991). There is a really nice picture (74) on page 179 in Radford's textbook (2004) that explains it nicely. I'll try to upload it tomorrow.

  • There are a couple details that I hope you can clarify. In pt 2, isn't the predominant order in French Noun followed by he Adjective? In the 1st full paragraph, what is 'Num' or a 'Num-head'? How does number agreement in adjectives support Num being a strong head? Your statement that Bouchard argues that order changes semantics for adjectives sounds strange; it is a staple of basic French grammar to note the 'grand homme'/'homme grand', 'propre amour'/'amour propre' distinctions. And last, who is Baker? I'm guessing 'Bourchard' is a typo?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 2:26
  • I fixed the typo (it is Bouchard, of course). Baker is the author of the book you read, The atoms of language, or you're talking about a different book with the same title written by someone else?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:04
  • Re: head and Num, see Andrew Radford's Glossary privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~radford/PapersPublications/glossary.htm Let me know if you still have questions, I'll try to explain it in a simpler way then
    – Alex B.
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 17:12
  • I'm not the OP; I had no idea about the author of the book mentioned. I'll check out the link. But which is the predominant order of adjectives in French?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 20:51
  • Oops, fixed it already. It is postpositional. I'll try to find some references to back it up.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 0:25

I will agree with Denis Bouchard that "pragmatic likeliness is not a measure of grammaticality".

Yet we can not just speculate on the possibilities of a language based on grammatical ambiguities. For instance, French allows loan words from English, but looking at the following sentence:

Le race car allait à toute speed sur l'highway et s'est crashé avec un big truck.

I doubt that with so many nouns, adjectives and verbs borrowed from English,this sentence would be accepted as a correct French sentence, if considered to be French at all.

To figure out what rules adjectival positions, one needs to rely on usage. Although I don't have full-fledged statistical evidence with me (but mere examples from NGrams), it is clear that in spite of some adjectives allowing pre- as well as post-nominal position, many others are used in either positions only (where the other position remains marginal in usage). For instance:

  • Some adjectives will take either pre- and post-nominal position (ngrams):

    un ami fidèle or un fidèle ami

  • Some adjectives will take strictly the pre-nomimal position:

    autre chose not chose autre

  • Some adjectives will take strictly the post-nominal position (ngrams):

    un arbre vert not un vert arbre

Here we have to make several distinctions:

  1. Same adjective usage from homonymic adjective usage:
    The examples provided in the question (here in French):

    un homme grand and un grand homme

    offer a case of homonymic usage: while the first translates as "a tall man", the second translates as "a great man". Nevertheless, it is possible for the latter to mean "tall" as well as "great" depending on the context, e.g. c'est un grand homme mince, dont la tête touche le plafond, "it's a tall, thin man, whose head touches the sealing". The same is true in the example provided by Denis, where ancienne église can mean both "former" as well as "ancient":

    cette école est une ancienne église, "this school is a former church"
    cette ancienne église date de 1200 AD, "this ancient church dates 1200 AD"

    NB: whilst grand homme relates to homme grand by denoting a figurative sense of the same adjective, it is not true of ancienne église, nor is it true in the case of grande maison, which translates as a "large house" and not as a "great house".

  2. Colloquial usage from literary usage:
    Some adjectives will be found in both pre- and post-nominal positions, whilst keeping the same meaning. Yet the difference would be hinging on style as the examples below reveal:

    une fleur blanche and une blanche fleur (ngrams)

    The first is colloquial and the second literary, it may possibly be found in poems, tales and fancy names only.

So what rules adjective order in French?

The question hasn't really been answered yet, and I don't see a single rule that can explain all possibilities. I don't claim to hold the entire solution to this problem, but in an effort to explain this feature to students of French languages, I have found several factors that can explain adjectival position:

  1. most adjectives are post-nominal;
  2. some semantic categories of adjectives determine the position (eg. numbers are pre-nominal);
  3. some morphological categories of adjectives determine the position (eg. past participles or adjectives in -able are post-nominal);
  4. some phonetic constraints force an alternative position to facilitate pronunciation (eg. une femme aimable, un homme aimable, une aimable femme but not un aimable homme);
  5. some adjectives can take a figurative meaning if pre-nominal (eg. un grand homme);
  6. pre-nominal adjectives usage can be prescriptive and post-nominal descriptive (eg. "glycosylphosphatidylethanolamine" est un mot long, "glycosylphosphatidylethanolamine" fait partie des longs mots français or cf. c'est un sympa moment i.e. a pre-defined class of "nice moments" vs. c'est un moment sympa i.e. a moment that has the quality of being nice);
  7. pre-nominal adjective usage can emphasise a literary style (see above) or be enunciative (eg. aujourd'hui est un sombre jour dans l'histoire humaine or il s'agit d'un incroyable individu).

If more can be added to complement or challenge this explanation, I'd be glad to read it, as I am not fully satisfied with it myself. Meanwhile I hope it helps.

  • I would have said "La race-car speedait sur la highway et s'est crashé avec un big truck". Not considered good french, but young guys would accept and say that without any trouble. Commented Aug 24, 2012 at 10:44
  • also N.B: "chaque" is a "determinant" not an adjective Commented Aug 24, 2012 at 10:46
  • when re-read your sentence "cette ancienne église date de 1200 AD"... it is true that is loses the sense of no longer being a church... Commented Aug 24, 2012 at 10:47
  • @StephaneRolland: "chaque" is also considered to be an "undetermined adjective", falling within the class of "non-qualifier adjectives". I originally wanted to use some qualifier adjective like "gros" which usually is pre-nominal, but i could also think of post-nominal examples. Non-qualifiers on the other hand are strictly pre-nominal. See synapse-fr.com/grammaire/GTM_2_2_2.htm Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 5:40
  • @StephaneRolland: to avoid ambiguities I replaced "chaque" with "autre". Commented Sep 23, 2012 at 9:35

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