Mastering Spanish adjectives ultimately comes down to two things: (1) how to form the adjectives, and (2) where the adjectives are placed in relation to the nouns they modify.
This article will go over basic adjectives in Spanish as well as adjective formation and placement, as well as a few of the most common exceptions you will come across in your conversations with native Spanish speakers.
By the way, if you're getting started with Spanish and want to go from beginner to intermediate fast, I recommend Spanish Uncovered. The course teaches you through StoryLearning® so that you reach conversational fluency quickly, without getting bogged down in grammar.
What Are Spanish Adjectives?
Adjectives in Spanish are the same as in English. Simply put, descriptive adjectives are words that describe nouns. It really is that simple! So if you want to say something is tasty or boring, or colourful, the Spanish words you will use for those descriptions are adjectives.
The Basics Of Spanish Adjective Formation
For basic Spanish adjectives, the ending is almost always determined by the noun it modifies. In other words, the noun and the adjective must match.
This noun-adjective agreement for the most common Spanish adjectives has two components: gender and number. Meaning, a camisa (one blouse) is bonita (pretty), while a pair of zapatos (shoes) are bonitos. The most common adjectives must agree in gender and are either masculine or feminine depending on the noun they describe.
- El hombre hizo un comentario apropiado. (The man made an appropriate comment.)
- El hombre hizo algunos comentarios apropiados. (The man made a few appropriate comments.)
- Fue la oportunidad apropiada para llamarse. (It was the proper opportunity to call them.)
- Hay muchas oportunidades apropiadas para llamar a los padres. (There are many proper opportunities to call the parents.)
- Tengo un buen libro. (I have a good book.)
That's it! Singular Spanish adjectives end in –o/a; the noun-adjective agreement is really that simple.
So you add an a to the end for a feminine singular noun and an s for plural forms of a noun. Most Spanish adjectives follow this pattern which should make it easier for you to learn.
Intermediate Spanish Adjective Formation
In addition to the basic pattern most common Spanish adjectives follow, there are some Spanish adjective endings that require a slightly different approach. Not ALL adjectives change using the pattern described above.
For example, there are whole groups of adjectives that do not change ending by gender at all. These adjectives, which end in consonants, –e, or –ista, only change if they modify a plural noun.
Here are some examples with the plural form of these adjective ends:
Finally, there are a few other adjectives in Spanish that require adding an –a (instead of changing the ending from –o to –a) for feminine nouns. These fall into 3 categories:
1. Adjectives that end in a consonant and refer to geography:
español, española, españoles, españolas (Spanish)
inglés, inglesa, ingleses, inglesas (English)
2. Adjectives that end in in –án or –ón:
dormilón, dormilona, dormilones, dormilonas (sleepy)
cabezón, cabezona, cabezones, cabezonas (stubborn)
3. Adjectives ending in –or that are not used to compare value or size:
hablador, habladora, habladores, habladoras (chatty)
trabajador, trabajadora, trabajadores, trabajadoras (hard-working)
¡Ojo!: When writing out some adjectives, you will notice accents appearing or disappearing in different forms. The easiest way to figure out where the accent belongs is to speak the words.
The emphasis in the second syllable of cortés (polite) requires an accent, but when pluralized as corteses, the second syllable is naturally emphasized, so no accent is needed.
These few exceptions to noun-adjective agreement will begin to feel normal as you speak Spanish more. You may be surprised how quickly you pick up on the patterns, if you haven't already!
What You Need To Know: The Basics Of Adjective Placement in Spanish
In English, adjectives generally come before the noun they modify. The very first thing many people learn about adjectives in Spanish is that in a Spanish sentence, they come after the noun instead of before.
For example, consider the following sentences in English and Spanish and where the adjectives are in relation to the nouns they modify:
- Me gusta el vino tinto, pero no me gusta el vino blanco.
- (I like red wine, but I don't like white wine.)
- La maestra tiene una bicicleta grande y verde. (The teacher has a large, green bicycle.)
While this quick distinction between placing adjectives in English and Spanish is helpful for beginner Spanish learners, it misses the complexity of the role adjectives play in a sentence.
In reality, where an adjective belongs in Spanish has a lot to do with the purpose of the adjective and, in some cases, what you are trying to say.
Intermediate Adjectives: Limiting, Possessive, And Variable Spanish Adjectives
There are many different types of adjectives, including descriptive words, limiting adjectives, and possessive adjectives.
Most people do not learn to distinguish between adjective types in their native language because there is no need—phrases that make sense just sound right, and you don't even think about whether or not there is an adjective ending. Having to learn these nuances is one of the things that makes studying a new language challenging.
When learning Spanish vocabulary, however, it is very helpful to learn the different groups of adjectives. Write out a Spanish adjectives list to get you started. Doing so will help you recognize which adjectives come after the noun they modify (and which come before).
Limiting adjectives are adjectives that limit the noun rather than being used to describe it, like muchos (many), cada (each), or el segundo (the second). Most limiting adjectives in Spanish come before the verb they modify:
- Nuestra tercera casa fue minúscula. El único beneficio fue una piscina privada en el jardín. (Our third house was tiny. The only advantage was a private pool in the garden.)
In the second sentence, did you notice one limiting adjective único and one descriptive adjective privada? As a limiting adjective, único came before the noun it modified, while the descriptive adjective privada came after.
Possessive adjectives (also called “possessive determiners”) are those that describe the relationship between the modified noun and the speaker or subject of the sentence. In Spanish, as in English, possessive adjectives generally come before the noun:
- Mi esposo viaja cuarenta y cinco minutos al trabajo en su motocicleta. (My husband travels 45 minutes to work on his motorcycle.)
Variable adjectives are not a type of adjective at all. Rather, they are adjectives that have different meanings depending on where they are in relation to the noun.
For example, pobre means “poor” when it comes after the noun it modifies. Before the noun, on the other hand, pobre means “pitiable”.
If that seems confusing, think about the word “old” in English. If you describe someone as an “old friend,” are you saying they are also old in age? Not necessarily!
Some of the distinction in English comes from intonation or emphasis; in Spanish, the placement of the adjective is what makes the difference.
Let's look at another pair of examples with the word grande:
- Cada una de las casas grandes tienen doce ventanas en el piso principal. (Each one of the large houses has twelve windows on the main floor.)
- Lope de Vega fue un gran dramaturgo. (Lope de Vega was a great playwright.)
In the first sentence, you see the literal definition of the word grande (large). In the second, when the adjective is placed before the modified noun, the meaning is “great” instead.
Here is a Spanish adjectives list with some common variable nouns (including the examples already given) with their meanings:
Another way to think about the difference is that the adjectives have a more literal meaning when they come after the noun. When used before the noun, the meaning is generally figurative.
Spanish Adjectives – Putting It All Together
If you're just starting out learning Spanish and the many exceptions and specifics of Spanish adjectives seem overwhelming, don't worry!
The good news is that at their most basic, most adjectives in Spanish are very simple.
The more nuanced uses of Spanish adjectives, such as deciding whether they are masculine or feminine or singular or plural, will become more natural to you as you immerse yourself in authentic Spanish every day.
By reading, listening to, and speaking Spanish in real-world settings, you will start to notice and pick up on the complexities that make Spanish adjectives so great! Take a look at the Spanish Uncovered and start immersing yourself in the language. You will master the common adjectives in no time!