In teaching Spanish I often explain the difference between pre-nominal adjectives and post-nominal adjectives as the difference between an English noun phrase in which the adjective is stressed, and therefore becomes a word (hotdog), and a NP in which the N is stressed, and is therefore thought of as a phrase: (hot dog). A hotdog is not a kind of dog -- the fact that it is "hot" (or described as such) makes it a completely different category of thing. A whitehouse is not a kind of house, but a white house is a type of house.

Similarly (at least according to me it is similar), in Spanish, if I say "un carro rojo", I am identifying a house and describing it as red. If I say "un rojo carro", the fact that the car is red is integrally a part of the nature of that car, at least insofar as I am referring to it. In English this distinction could be made by distinguishing "a red car" vs. "a red car".

I am currently designing a Chinese course and am wrestling with how to address the same issue, specifically regarding when to or not to use the grammatical particle 的 (de). My theory is that using 的 distances the description from the integral being of the thing being named in the same way that putting the adjective after the noun does in Spanish, or in the same way that stressing the noun as opposed to the adjective does in English. When de is omitted in a noun phrase, the adjective is no longer a modifier, describing a peculiarity of this particular item that belongs to a wider category, but rather has become an attribute of the noun. This omission of de sometimes produces compounds but not always: 恐怖分子 -- horrific partisan = terrorist but 恐怖的分子 -- horrific DE partisan = a partisan that is being described as horrific.

I am not a trained linguist, but I speak multiple languages and am learning many, while I am a quite successful language teacher. I know that I am on to something, because thinking about it this way has worked both for my teaching and my own learning, but I am interested in expert feedback on my approach. Is my terminology correct regarding adjectives being either attributive or modifiers? Is this tendency for languages to distinguish between these two uses of adjectives commonly referred to in linguistics? Are the examples I used above correct and congruent?

In short, my theory is: An adjective can be either an attribute or a modifier of a noun. As a modifier, if it is omitted, all that is lost is specificity, but meaning does not change, as a modifier simply specifies a trait of the specific item that is being referred to out of a wider group. If it is an attributive and is omitted, the meaning is completely different, because an attributive is as integral a part of the identity of the object being referred to as the name of the object itself.

Is this true/workable?

  • Un rojo carro sounds a bit strange in Spanish, but un carro rojo sounds perfectly normal. In Spanish there are some adjectives that admit both positions with different meanings: una casa nueva (a house which is new) / una nueva casa (another house), una buena amiga / una amiga buena, etc.
    – Davius
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 19:31

1 Answer 1


Welcome to the site!

I am a native speaker of American English, have fair fluency in Spanish, and have studied a fair amount of Mandarin. I think there maybe some overlap in the concepts you describe between languages, but I think the details are actually different. Whether this is important for your actual teaching method is another matter.

I recently read a linguistic treatment of Latin that described, among other things, the different semantics that typically apply when an adjective is used as a pre-modifier and as a post-modifier (Devine and Stephens' Latin Word Order). The theory they espoused seemed quite applicable to Spanish and is similar to what is described in the answer to this linked question.

Basically, the theory is that post-nominal placement tends to signal its use as an intersective modifier and indicating that the generic semantics of both the noun and the adjective equally apply to the referent. With pre-nominal placement, the modifier tends to semantically apply to only one aspect of the noun or to signal that the adjective is not used to draw a generic distinction between different types of the noun. A good example in Spanish is the title of the play En la ardiente oscuridad (In the Burning Darkness), which could not be well translated as "In the type of Darkness that is burning." Normally, however, I don't think the difference is easily translatable in English. (E.g., la casa blanca and the la blanca nieve, both normally have the same structure and same stress pattern in English: "the white house" and "the white snow." The different positions presume a different additional predication about the noun in Spanish, but this differences is not systematically made in English.

The difference between "a red car" and "a red car" has some correlation with the Spanish distinction of adjective placement, but is a matter of pragmatics, rather than semantics. I could say: "I own a red car" to stress the color, corresponding to tengo un carro rojo; however, I could also say: "in the burning darkness" to stress the state of the darkness, now corresponding to pre-modifier placement in Spanish (en la ardiente oscuridad).

English also uses stress to indicate semantic differences as well as pragmatic ones, but they don't match the semantic differences in Spanish. Compare the different stress pattern of "tównhouse" and "town cóuncil," which reflect different underlying semantics. Both expression could correlate with a post-nominal adjective in Spanish (casa adosada and consejo municipal).

In Mandarin, I would say that the difference between 恐怖分子 ("a terror element(s)"/"terrorist(s)") and 恐怖的分子 (“terrifying elements") is that the former specifies a compound and the latter is a modifier and noun phrase. Again, this has some correlation with adjective placement in Spanish, but I think the criteria and applicability are different. I would say that Mandarin also has a rule whereby singular modifiers tend to form syntactic, but not necessarily semantic compounds and so do not require or allow the morpheme 的 to follow them (e.g., xiǎo gǒu/"small dog"); whereas multisyllabic modifier phrases require 的 unless they form semantic compounds (e.g., 非常小的狗 fēichāng xiǎo de gǒu/"really small dog").


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