One of the first things that every Spanish student learns about adjectives is that they follow nouns: think Casablanca, perro caliente, and living la vida loca. But sooner or later, this neat picture becomes muddled as our student learns that adjectives can also precede nouns, usually with some change in meaning (see the illustration below). I was curious to know how often adjectives appear in these two locations in actual usage. Do they usually follow nouns, and if so, by what margin?
Fortunately, the perfect resource exists to address this question quantitatively and painlessly: Mark Davies’s hundred-million word Corpus del Español. I downloaded the freely available list of the 50,000 most common two-word sequences in the 20th century portion of this corpus, some 20 million words. I then compared the frequency of the noun-adjective and adjective-noun sequences on this list, omitting special types of adjectives that always come before nouns: possessives like mi ‘my’ and tu ‘your’, demonstratives like este ‘this’ and ese ‘that’, ordinal numbers like primero ‘first’ and segundo ‘second’, and quantifiers like mucho ‘many’ and algunos ‘some’.
In this reduced data set, noun-adjective sequences indeed outnumbered adjective-noun sequences, accounting for 60% of the data. The textbooks are right! What was particularly striking was the degree to which a few adjectives dominated the adjective-noun group. The ten adjectives that most frequently preceded nouns (grande, mayor, bueno, nuevo, próximo, cierto, alto, largo, principal, and propio) accounted for 75% of adjective-noun occurrences. Grande alone accounted for 24%. In contrast, the ten adjectives that most frequently followed nouns (político, humano, pasado, siguiente, económico, nacional, social, general, público, and internacional) accounted for only 30% of noun-adjective occurrences.
Also striking was the disjunction of the two lists. 331 distinct adjectives in the dataset occurred after nouns, and 62 before nouns, but only 20 occurred both before and after nouns. For the curious, these were actual, antiguo, bajo, corto, determinante, difícil, especial, fuerte, importante, largo, libre, mayor, pasado, principal, propio, próximo, siguiente, vecino, vital, and vivo. Note that this list includes only half of the top ten adjectives that preceded nouns (mayor, próximo, largo, principal, and propio) and only two of the top ten adjectives that followed nouns (pasado and siguiente). Grande, the adjective responsible for 24% of adjective-noun sequences, was completely lacking in the noun-adjective sequences. Presumably it would show up if one were to extend the analysis to lower-frequency word sequences.
Whew! What a labor of love!
Not really — Mark Davies has the data so nicely organized that it just took me a few hours in Excel to get the numbers I wanted.
That may be, but you still had to know where to go in the first place! This represents a meaningful, succinct collection of data that will certainly help me, as a high school Spanish teacher, answer my students’ questions about the position of adjectives. Thank you!
¡El gusto es mío!
Thank you for the excellent and fascinating article on Spanish adjective placement. The metrics you revealed are amazing. It appears that we now know from your data mining that there are 20 and, importantly, only 20 adjectives that occur both before and after a noun. Much appreciated.
Once one removes from this list of 20 three adjectives whose meanings I understand from other sources change with placement (antiguo, bajo & proprio), one is then left with a list of 17 (actual, corto, determinante, difícil, especial, fuerte, importante, largo, libre, mayor, pasado, principal, próximo, siguiente, vecino, vital, and vivo.)
So, here is my question related to this residual list of 17 ambidextrous adjectives: Can you refer me to a good source that can explain when to place these 17 adjective before a noun and when to place them after one? If not, perhaps this issue would be fertile ground for another fine article.
My thanks in advance.
The source you are looking for is question #96 in my book, “How can an adjective’s position change its meaning?” If you’ve been thinking of getting a copy of the book, this would be a good place to start. If you’re not ready to take the plunge, let me know and I can send you an electronic copy of just that part.
Appreciate your prompt reply.
Now that I have warmed up to the adjective placement issue and am anxious to resolve it, your very kind offer to send the Question #96 portion of your book by email so that I can put this issue to rest is gratefully accepted.
Nonetheless, I do intend to purchase your book. As I have since January waded about 2/3’s through the Duolingo course on Spanish, I have flagged several knotty similar issues for which I am unable to find adequate answers either online or in the hardcopy resources I have available. Suspect that your book is just the thing I need to be able to address such issues.
Returning to the residual list of 17 ambidextrous adjectives, I infer from your response that (1) each of these 17 adjectives are those whose meaning changes with placement and (2) the noted section of your book will provide the placement changing meanings for each of these 17 adjectives. Is this correct? [Interestingly and incidentally, from your article or other sources, I have noted that each of the adjectives on your list of 10 most frequently used ‘before noun’ adjectives are also adjectives that appear both before and after a noun and whose meaning changes with placement (i.e. gran/grande, mayor, bueno, nuevo, próximo, cierto, alto, largo, principal, and propio).]
It is beyond the scope of this inquiry, because I do not want to tax you with answering more questions than the ones for which you have already graciously provided answers, but I am curious whether any reliable authority has published a table of what your article notes are the total 62 ‘before noun’ adjectives in Spanish, outlining which (1) only appear before nouns, (2) appear before and after nouns with meaning changes dependent upon placement, and (3) appear before and after nouns with same meanings regardless of placement (but placement is perhaps dependent on some grammar rule or custom unrelated to meaning). It seems to me that these three categories would be the universe of options for ‘before noun’ adjectives. Certainly, such a table would be extremely useful for Spanish students and I cannot be the first to inquire about such a table.
Again, my many thanks for your generous guidance.