1. Meaning-changing adjectives

[Source:] Some adjectives can mean different things depending on their placement around the noun they modify.
When placed after the noun like normal, the adjective carries a fairly objective, descriptive meaning.
When placed before the noun, the adjective carries a more subjective, opinionated meaning.

Source: p 112, A Comprehensive French Grammar (2007, 6 ed) by Glanville Price

146 Some other adjectives have one meaning when they precede the noun and a different one when they follow the noun. In some cases the two meanings are very clearly distinguishable. In other cases, the distinction is less sharp but
[1.] there is a tendency for the adjective to have a literal meaning or to be used objectively when it follows the noun
[2.] and to have a more figurative meaning or to be used more subjectively when it precedes the noun.

What explains these semantic differences (due to syntax) shared by French and Spanish?
I already read this, but could not find the answer.

  • There are French and Spanish language stackexchanges that may be better suited for this kind of question. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 8:12
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    @jknappen: well, this question seems to be about both languages, so it would not be on-topic for either of these sites. Also, it asks for an explanation of the semantic difference, which seems to me like it would require linguistic work. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 10:37
  • @sumelic +1. Thank you for your support!
    – user5306
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 16:03
  • Related: in some Slavic languages, if the purpose of adjective is to classify the denoted entity which belongs to a certain category or type, such adjective appears in postposition, contrary to normal preposition. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 23:28
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    I'd be careful with the terms literal and figurative, at least with respect to Spanish. A new book (just released/printed) is "un nuevo libro", whereas a book that is new (to someone, but may be used) is "un libro nuevo". If anything, it's the postpositioned adjective that is more figurative. In Spanish, adjectives that come before carry an inherent/essential/restrictive connotation. The only adjective that i can think of off the top of my head that could maybe fit the pattern you mention is gran(de). Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 6:58

4 Answers 4


Well, here's a theory. Some Romance languages distinguish two sorts of attribution: essential versus accidental. In Portuguese, that's the difference between "estar" (accidental) and "ser" (essential). Since both orders of modifier-modified are permitted in French (as they are also, marginally, in English), the order has been specialized to express this difference: pre-nominal position for essential and post-nominal position for accidental properties.

This is an old way of distinguishing prenominal from postnominal. It is discussed in the 17th c. Port Royal Logic, a.k.a. The Art of Thinking, Port Royal Logic, using an example that also works in English (which I use here, since I've only read the book in English translation). The "visible stars" refers to those stars which are permanently classified as being visible to the naked eye under good seeing conditions, an essential attribute, while the "stars visible" refers to those stars you can see on some occasion of interest, an accidental attribute. When it's cloudy, the stars visible are only a small proportion of the visible stars.


Two observations with respect to English specifically:

  • Placing adjectives after nouns is somewhat marked. It's generally preferred to put the adjective before the noun it modifies.
  • Adjectives before nouns cannot be limited or modified by prepositional phrases.

Thus, using the examples in Greg Lee's and Moctadir's answers, you can have the stars visible on this date and the person responsible for this crime, but cannot have *the visible on this date stars or *the responsible for this crime person.

The decision to use the marked order rather than the unmarked order implies to me that there's a reason for it—in other words, there's some limitation implied on the adjective.


I have here an example. The word responsible when placed in an attributive position, say for example, that responsible person (only mean that the person is trustworthy) on the other hand, when placed in a predicative position, like, that person is responsible ( it would mean two, trustworthy and a person to blame. He or she has something to do with what happened). I actually have a lecture about this and I am trying to think of other example but I cannot think of any.


Depending on what language and global culture that "phenomenon" might change occurrence or even borderline the cusp of understandable and appropriate commentary either on topic or not rude..etc. In English it is because a subject always discusses an object in written language but if you pay attention to instances such as much of Ebonics often times the mode of speech does not follow colloquial rule. You can separately consider agglutinative vs. fusional languages to derive a complex understanding but it suffices to answer you question in provision of the English language without expanding on the topic of communication styles and effects.

  • Very prosaic, one small typo "your[r] answer"
    – Joop Eggen
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:49
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    It's the mobile keyboard me thinks..
    – user18367
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:51
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    I cannot make any sense of this answer, or see what it has to do with the question.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 18:45
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    @user18367 many people have flagged your posts for not answering the question. I too find it very hard to relate your posts to the questions asked. For example, "you can consider X vs Y to derive a complex understanding"... well, you haven't explained anything there. How is the reader to learn from this? The verbosity of phrases like "borderline the cusp of understandable and appropriate commentary" obfuscates your point, rather than elucidate it.
    – prash
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 19:33
  • Can't write an essay here. But... The use of toneme mentioned in other posts here in culture has significant value as emotion and also suggests region. As such interpretation varies even within a culture. The fluctuation of tone in Spanish for instance is often tell tale of teleological points not otherwise expressed unless expanded upon like in writing. Agglutinative language places larger emphasis on conjunctions in idea and fusional languages tend to be more time oriented so that people often express the change of lifestyle pace between cultures. Not a book but that SHOULD suffice.
    – user18367
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 19:41

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