Tag Archives: Spanish word order

Do Spanish adjectives usually follow nouns?

One of the first things that every Spanish student learns about adjectives is that they follow nouns: think Casablancaperro 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?

gran hombre hombre grandeFortunately, 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.

Spanish is normal, English is weird

“Spanish is normal, English is weird” is a frequent theme in my classroom. Students coming from a monolingual English background are quick to assume the contrary: that where Spanish and English differ, Spanish is the oddball. I consider it part of my responsibility to shake up their world view a little, playing Copernicus to their Aristotle.

Below I detail six examples of this principle: three from pronunciation, one from spelling, and two from grammar. Readers are invited to contribute others.


  • English versus Spanish /r/. As described earlier on this blog, Spanish has two types of /r/: the rolling trill of carro and the short flap of caro. According to a cross-linguistic survey by Berkeley professor Ian Maddieson, both of these are are more common in the languages of the world than the gliding /r/ of English.
  • English versus Spanish vowels. Spanish has five vowel sounds, corresponding to the five vowel letters aeiou. In contrast, English has 12 distinct vowel sounds – those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the unstressed first syllable of baton. As described in an earlier post, a five or six-vowel system is the most common type worldwide. The most vowel sounds found in any language is 14, making English quite the outlier.
  • English versus Spanish syllable structure. English has an impressive ability to combine individual consonant sounds into groups. The single syllable of strengths, my favorite example, begins with three consonants (/s/, /t/, and /r/) and ends with four (/ŋ/, /k/, /θ/, and /s/). Spanish is more restrictive. It allows at most two consonants before or after a vowel, and these are strictly limited (thereby hangs a future post…). Here again English is an outlier: most languages allow only limited consonant combinations, as in Spanish.

Writing: capitalization. English capitalizes more words than Spanish: not just proper nouns, but also the pronoun I, days of the week, months of the year, and various other categories. Here English is truly an oddball: it is the world’s second most exuberant user of capital letters, behind only German.


  • Singular and plural “you”. My oh my, how Spanish students struggle with singular  and usted versus plural vosotros and ustedes. I routinely encounter students who have been studying Spanish for three or four years and are still convinced that ustedes (“you all”) means “they”. This is partly because the verb forms for ustedes are identical to those for ellos/ellas (“they”), but mostly, and more profoundly, because English lacks a plural “you” (leaving aside the dialectal form y’all). In this regard Spanish is, again, normal. David Ingram’s classic (1978) survey “Typology and Universals of Personal Pronouns” found that 67 of 71 languages reviewed had both singular and plural “you”.
  • Noun-adjective order. Spanish speakers say casa blanca instead of white house, and so on for most pairings of a noun and its modifying adjective. The Spanish word order is found in over half the languages of the world. It has always struck me as the logical order in terms of sentence processing: that way, one starts with the basic concept (“house”), and then “decorates” it with details of color and the like.