I've noticed that in English the adjective is usually before the noun, why is that? In French it's in one way or the other depending on the case (as far as I know it's not to make things clearer).

Example: 'Give me that big cup' vs 'Give me that cup big'

Since there might be other things that might be given, pointing out that it's the cup that you need makes more sense and only then you narrow it down to the big cup.

Is there a reason languages are like this or is it just historical how rules evolved and got stuck?

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    What and how many languages did you investigate to get to that conclusion? Chances are that if you just took a look at maybe three Indo-European languages, the similarity is simply due to their common origin. You'd need data from I'd say at least 20 different languages from different language families (actually I think it's even about 70 if you wanted to do it professionally) to draw any universal inferences. Aug 6, 2016 at 13:25
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    This is true of English, but not of languages generally. The order Noun-Adjective is very common cross-linguistically -- in fact, more so than Adjective-Noun, according to the WALS sample (wals.info/chapter/87).
    – TKR
    Aug 6, 2016 at 19:37
  • Note that adjectives, when used as restrictions, precede the noun; as do determiners, which are also restrictions. English has the possibility of an 'object complement', which is not a restriction, and it follows the noun.
    – amI
    Aug 8, 2016 at 20:57
  • "Since there might be other things that might be given, pointing out that it's the cup that you need makes more sense and only then you narrow it down to the big cup." But then, one could counterargue, "since there might be other things of different sizes, it makes more sense to point out you need something big and only then narrow it down to the big cup". Both lines of attack explain equally little. Linear ordering of adjectives and nouns is a language-specific property that doesn't affect their interpretation or ease of parsing.
    – Koldito
    Aug 9, 2016 at 9:38

4 Answers 4


Hmm, in English this is certainly the case but it varies from language to language. I believe it is just linguistic convention. In Spanish, the adjective generally comes after the noun: El carro rojo, las hojas secas (the red car, the dry leaves). In French, the adjective generally comes after the noun with certain exceptions outlined by the acronym BANGS (Beauty, age, number, goodness, size): Le chat noir (the black cat), but le petit cheval (the little horse).

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    What do you mean by "linguistic convention"? Aug 6, 2016 at 13:32
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    We would have to discuss more deeply what is an "adjective". In Romance languages, there seem to be at least three different kinds of adjectives: those that must precede the noun, those that must come after it, and those that can be placed in either position. Besides that, there are words that perform "adjective" functions but belong to closed classes, such as numerals, articles, demonstratives, quantifiers - which usually precede both nouns and adjectives proper. Mario Alberto Perini, if I recall correctly, identifies no less than seven slots preceding nouns and two after them in Portuguese. Oct 6, 2016 at 2:14

The question of word order AN vs. NA is a well researched topic in typology. The result may surprise you: English is in the minority position of being an AN language, NA languages are far more frequent. According to the WALS survey the proportion AN:NA = 878:373 (with 110 cases of no dominant order and 5 cases of no adjectives modifying nouns at all).


it's historical. Obviously there are only two choices. some languages evolved one way, some the other way, and in some languages like latin word order is (mostly) free. It's related to whether your language has case endings,but there could also be other factors, like gender. human languages are incredibly diverse. it has nothing to do with logic or rationality.


It is possible to argue that even in English adjectives come after the noun. Consider:

The blue car.


The car my aunt bought yesterday.

The car for handicapped drivers.

So, in English, phrasal adjectives come after nouns. If we take generative grammar as a valid model, then either the adjectives are fronted when they are single words, or they are postponed when they are phrases. As there are far more languages where both kinds of adjectives come after nouns than languages where both come before names (Japanese, I'm told, is one), it is quite probable that the first hypothesis is closer to the truth.

(And I am curious if there is any language out there where single-word adjectives come after nouns, but phrasal adjectives precede them.)

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