Grammar Tips (#19): The Dance of Adjectives (or the before and after conundrum of adjective placement)

Adjective placement can be a tricky issue for many Portuguese learners; English speakers are generally used to finding adjectives before their referent nouns, but Portuguese works in reverse: the norm is to have adjectives follow nouns, with the exceptions being borne out of either poetic license or to capture a figurative meaning of a given adjective.

Hopefully the following rules will help clear out these issues for you!

#1: Outside of poetry or artistic license, some adjectives have fixed positions regarding their referent nouns.

Adjectives that appear before the noun include:

  • Cardinal numerals: um – one; dez – ten; mil – one thousand, et. al. (cardinals can be placed after a noun by inserting the word número – meaning number – between the referent noun and the adjective, which is mainly used with serial numbered items like houses)
  • Ordinal numerals: [o/a] primeiro/a – first; [o/a] segundo/a – second, et.al.)
  • Relative superlatives: [o/a] melhor – the best; [o/a] mais bonito/a – the prettiest; [o/a] mais difícil – the most difficult
  • Whenever a certain adjective+noun combination has become calcified in the language:  bom dia! (good morning!); [ser de] má rês² (idiom. bad, mean, or sketchy person); pouca sorte (misfortune)

 

Adjectives that appear after the noun include:

  • Colo(u)rs: verde – green; azul – blue; laranja – orange
  • Shapes and sizes: quadrado/a – square[d]; magro/a – lean, thin
  • States of beingcarregado/a (full) – this segment includes all past participles when used as adjectives
  • Technical/Partitive adjectives, i.e. those who establish a subset of the referent noun:
    • água mineralmineral water [i.e. there are many different kinds of water]
    • animal doméstico – pet [lit. domestic animal, a subset of animals]
  • When an adjective is followed by a complement [i.e. a noun/verb/adjective connected to it which completes/helps clarify its meaning]:
    • fácil de entender – easy to understand;
    • orientado/a para resultados – results-oriented;
    • escrito a verde – written in green;
    • invisível aos olhos – invisible to the eye[s]

 

#2: A few nouns can be placed either before or after the noun, with their usage before the noun being a figurative iteration of that adjective’s meaning.

For example, um homem pobre is someone who’s poor in terms of material wealth, while um pobre homem is someone one might feel pity for (he’s such a poor fellow); caro/a after the noun means expensive, while before the noun it usually means dear, cherished (usually used as a form of polite address, just like in English²).

It’s important to note that other figurative meanings of an adjective may exist, but those have to be created using a complement – which always appears after the noun (see rule #1): for example, pobre de espírito means narrow-minded, which is still a figurative approach to the word poor, but applied here to a lack of interest in knowledge instead of money. 

Other examples of this before-after/figurative-objective dichotomy include:

Adjective Meaning after the noun (objective) Meaning before the noun (figurative)
gordo (fat) fat in terms of weight large in terms of width/abundance
grande (big) big in factual terms (length, width, space) big in terms of outstanding personality or achievements (uma grande mulher – an outstanding woman)
triste (sad) emotionally sad (= being the opposite of happy)
  • causing sorrow;
  • being regrettable, bad, pathetic ([fazer] triste figura = sad state; pathetic)

#3: An interesting effect of this variability is the possibility to have two different, opposite combinations between adjectives working as nouns and taking adjectives in turn.

For example, the Gramática Universal da Língua Portuguesa (2000: p. 139) gives “old Chinese man” as an example: in the sentence segment “velho chinês“, velho can be considered to be the noun and chinês the adjective, but it’s possible to argue the opposite in other occasions where velho acquires figurative meaning (when applied to events or abstract nouns).

 

Footnotes:

¹ Portuguese uses bom dia (lit. “good day”) in much the same way as English uses good morning (a greeting used from the time someone wakes up until noon/lunch). Our word for morning is [a] manhã.

² Rês alone means neat, four-legged livestock used for food (and it’s probably only used as such by farmers, pastors and cattle owners); the idea of a selection of animals of inferior quality was later transferred to people with less than commendable characteristics, so much so that people use the term ideomatically in the sense of “character” (allowing for the existence of people de boa rês, the good-natured, kindhearted counterparts to the black sheep of society).

³ The informal dear (used with loved ones) is usually rendered as querido/a instead of caro/a, which sounds stiff/formal.

Sources:

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