Tag Archives: Spanish adjectives

A unique example

The virtual ink was barely  dry on my previous post, about the expressive power of Spanish adjective syntax, when I came across another great example. This one is from Puerto Rico, in Magali García Ramis’s tender-hearted memoir, Felices días Tío Sergio. (By the way, I would recommend this book to any reader looking for a fairly straightforward read. Not too heavy on vocabulary, a strong narrative line, and only 160 pages long!)

Referring to Tío Sergio, García writes: “Él decía que nosotros éramos únicos porque éramos los únicos tres con ojos verdes en la familia.” (p. 85) [He said that we were unique because we were the only three people in the family with green eyes.] In this sentence García is playing with the two position-dependent meanings of the word único. Before a noun — or, here, the number tres, which acts as a pronoun in this context — the adjective único serves as a quantifier, meaning ‘only’. After éramos (a form of the verb ser ‘to be’) the adjective takes its basic meaning of ‘unique’. This is the same meaning you would see if the adjective appeared in its basic position immediately after the noun, as in un libro único ‘a unique book’.

This is a familiar pattern, by the way. Other adjectives show their basic meaning both after a noun and after ser (or estar, another verb meaning ‘to be’). For example, alto can refer either to physical or metaphorical height. The core meaning of physical height comes through in contexts like un árbol alto ‘a tall tree’ or el árbol es alto ‘the tree is tall’, while the metaphorical meaning requires the before-the-noun position, e.g. un alto funcionario ‘a high-placed bureaucrat’. Another example is un viejo amigo ‘an old friend’ (of long standing) vs. un amigo viejo ‘an old (elderly) friend’. Only the second meaning is possible in the sentence mi amigo es viejo. Likewise, adding muy ‘very’ or other modifiers forces the core meaning: muy alto ‘very tall’ or bastante viejo ‘quite old’ can only refer to height and age.

I guess one could describe a book as being muy único ‘very unique’ also — as in English, this would be good grammar, but bad writing.

Un ejemplo perfecto — a perfect example

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Mientras investigaba la posición de los adjetivos en español me encontré con un ejemplo perfecto de la manipulación expresiva de este parámetro lingüístico. Viene de la novela Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, por Fernando Labarta Vélez. (Tengo que confesar que no la he leído.) En la siguiente oración, Labarta juega con la posición del adjetivo perfecto para hacer hincapié en los aspectos estereotípicos que se combinan para producir una mujer perfecta:

Ensimismada en su perfeccionismo obsesivo, quiso ser siempre la mujer perfecta: la perfecta estudiante, la perfecta hija, la perfecta empresaria, la perfecta compañera. (p. 59)

Aquí la posición prenominal de perfecta en relación a estudiantehijaempresaria, y compañera indica que el adjetivo se une con cada sustantivo para crear una entidad conocida, como una olorosa rosaun tímido cordero. (Casi se puede imaginar comillas en el aire alrededor de estas expresiones.) Al otro mano, la posición posnominal y normal del adjetivo en una mujer perfecta indica que el atributo de la perfección es impredecible y objetivo.

De esta manera, la flexibilidad sintáctica del español contribuye al poder expresivo del idioma.


While I was looking into the position of the adjective in Spanish I came across a perfect example of how this linguistic parameter can be manipulated for expressive purposes. The example comes from the novel Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, by Fernando Labarta Vélez. (I must confess that I haven’t actually read the novel!). In the following sentence, Labarta plays with the position of the adjective perfecto to emphasize the stereotypical aspects that combine to produce a perfect woman:

Absorbed in her obsessive perfectionism, she always wanted to be the perfect woman: the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect business woman, the perfect mate. (my translation)

The pre-nominal position of the adjective (before estudiante ‘student’, hija ‘daughter’, empresaria ‘business woman’, and compañera ‘mate’) in the Spanish version indicates that the adjective combines with the following noun to create a well-established entity, like a ‘fragrant rose’ or a ‘timid sheep’. (You can almost imagine air quotes around these phrases.) In contrast, the normal position of the adjective after the noun mujer ‘woman’ indicates that perfection is an unpredictable and objective attribute.

The greater syntactic flexibility of Spanish thus contributes to the language’s expressive power.