How Spanish Adjectives Work

A Crash Course in How Adjectives Work in Spanish Language

When you first learn Spanish, los adjetivos (adjectives) may seem superfluous, ornamental, and just plain unimportant compared to nouns and verbs. All they accomplish is describe nouns, giving them detail and pizzazz.

This couldn’t be further from the truth: adjectives are useful, versatile, and necessary to communicate effectively and circumlocute, or speak around what you aim to communicate while you’re still building your vocabulary.

In other words, when you can’t recall a certain word, even common Spanish adjectives can help you convey an idea with numbers, colors, directions, emotions, conditions, and more. In this article, we’ll cover how to form adjectives and use them in a wide array of circumstances. 

Grammatical gender

In English, we associate the word “gender” with a person’s identity and expression. Some words in English have gender, such as gendered third-person pronouns (he, she, they), titles (Mr. and Ms.), and jobs (actor and actress, waiter and waitress).

Gender in Spanish behaves this way, too: the male actor is el actor, the female actor/actress is la actriz, four actresses are las actrices, and a group including seventy actresses and just one actor would be collectively dubbed the masculine plural los actores.

English speakers refer to a broom, fork, or any other inanimate object as “it,” a gender-neutral pronoun. In Spanish and many other world languages, on the other hand, all nouns — including inanimate objects, places, ideas, etc. — have gender, too. La escoba (the broom) is feminine and el tenedor (the fork) is masculine. Even the countries El Ecuador and La India are masculine and feminine, respectively.

Now, to define grammatical gender: grammatical gender refers to a noun’s gender (masculine or feminine) and its quantity (singular or plural). For example, la mesa is feminine and singular whereas los perros is masculine and plural.

Spanish adjective agreement

Many English speakers find concordancia, or gender agreement rules, incredibly challenging when they first learn Spanish. Not only do you have to learn new vocabulary and conjugations, but you also have to make sure the nouns and adjectives in your sentence agree, or match with respect to gender and number.

Here’s a quick example of the challenge:

English: The table is old. The dogs are old, too.
Spanish: La mesa es vieja. Los perros son viejos también.

In English, the word “old” remains identical in the two sentences, and why shouldn’t it? The word “old” is an adjective that always conveys the aged, not-young quality of the nouns it describes, and the nouns “table” and “dog” capture the subjects of interest.

Unfortunately, this same logic doesn’t apply in Spanish, French, German, Arabic, and many other languages with adjective agreement: notice how “vieja” and “viejos” both mean “old” and share the same root, but they have to change to agree with the grammatical gender of the nouns they describe.

Herein lies the challenge, especially in extemporaneous speech: you have to decide on the nouns and adjectives you hope to communicate and keep their grammatical gender in mind — lots to juggle all at once!

A quick consolation: while concordancia is correct Spanish grammar, not a mere stylistic choice, any native Spanish speaker will understand what you’re trying to communicate even if your adjectives don’t perfectly agree with your nouns.

In fact, even fluent Spanish speakers violate concordancia from time to time!

Below is a table with examples of correct concordancia with translations.

How to form adjectives in Spanish

You may start to notice a few patterns in the table above. One, which we’ve already covered, is how “old” and “yellow” stay the same in all of the English sentences but change slightly in the Spanish sentences.

Do you notice any correlation between the nouns’ endings and adjectives’ endings?

El perro and viejo both end with -o, los perros and viejos both end with -os, la mesa and amarilla both end with -a, and so on.Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple in all cases. We’ll cover notable exceptions and provide examples below, but the best way to conquer concordancia is by practicing with an experienced Spanish tutor who can correct your mistakes in real time.

Nouns with less obvious gender

The table above was overly simplistic because the masculine nouns were predictably masculine with -o and -os endings and the feminine nouns were predictably feminine with -a and -as endings. While many nouns behave this way in Spanish, many do not.

Other patterns exist, although they’re a bit harder to spot at first.

For instance, most words ending in -l and -r are masculine and most ending in -dad and -ión are feminine — for more examples, check out this article.

Some nouns are unbelievably unpredictable with regard to gender, such as el clima (the climate) and la mano (the hand). The silver linings: first, all nouns have a gendered article — el, la, los, or las — that provides the proper grammatical gender.

Second, at least the adjective endings follow the patterns we observed in the first table! Nouns with the gendered article el agree with adjectives ending in -o, la goes with -a, los goes with -os, and las goes with -as.

Check out the tables below for more details and examples.

Adjectives with endings other than -o

Up to this point, we’ve established a straightforward pattern to adhere to concordancia. There’s been a big — and, unfortunately, incorrect — assumption behind this pattern: all of the adjectives thus far have ended with -o.

For examples of adjectives not ending in -o and how to change their endings, check out the table below.

Instead of committing tables like these to memory, consider Spanish tutoring. Native and experienced speakers can provide shortcuts and other tips for learning Spanish, helping you understand concordancia faster!

* Note: The -ista and -istas ending sound feminine due to their terminal -a(s), but even masculine subjects, such as el perro, el actor, and el clima, preserve the -ista(s) endings. 

** Note: Due to a quirk in Spanish spelling, adjectives ending in -z become adjectives ending in -ces in the plural form.

*** Note: Due to Spanish accent rules, which are too complex to discuss here, some accents disappear in the plural form when an additional -es or -as syllable is added.

How to use adjectives in Spanish

Now that we’ve covered how to form all sorts of adjectives for all kinds of subjects, let’s cover how to use adjectives! By definition, adjectives describe nouns, so you should expect to find adjectives near their corresponding nouns. Earlier example sentences from this article have the noun + verb + adjective structure, which is identical in English and Spanish.

Spanish word order

Sometimes, we’d prefer to write more complicated sentences in which adjectives describe their nouns independently of the sentence’s verb. Here’s an example in English: The old dog walks around the neighborhood while the sly cat plots.

The adjectives “old” and “sly” come before the respective nouns they describe, “dog” and “cat.” Spanish adjective order is typically the opposite: adjectives typically come after the nouns they describe instead of before: el perro viejo ambula por el vecindario mientras trama el gato travieso.

Word order in Spanish is hard to grasp for English speakers, but it has its merits.

Look at the following example: the wrinkly, dehydrated, floppy, soggy, veiny leaf. Such a long list of unpleasant descriptors keeps your interlocutor in limbo — what in the world could they be describing? — until the subject is finally revealed at the end of the phrase.

In Spanish, it’s more difficult to create this sense of suspense: la hoja (leaf) would come first, followed by the list of unappealing-but-less-horrifying adjectives. A real-life example is the Spanish title of a popular children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Alexander y el día terrible, horrible, espantoso, horroroso.

Exceptions to Spanish word order

Like all good rules, there are exceptions. It turns out, there are plenty of situations in which the adjective comes before the noun in Spanish. Read below for explanations and check out the big table below for example sentences.

Articles

Articles, such as el (the, masculine singular) and la (the, feminine singular), are technically adjectives — after all, they describe the quantity and specificity of nouns!

Quantity

These are adjectives describing the number and amount of the noun. Common examples are counting numbers like un/a (one), dos (two), tres (three), cincuenta (50), setenta (70), descriptors like poco (little), mucho (many, lots of), and demasiado (too many, much of).

Fun fact: only one number has gendered endings: one (uno)! Uno is used as the counting number, and un/una/unos/unas are the adjective forms:

Possessive

Possessive adjectives describe who possesses the noun. These include mi/s (my), tu/s (your), su/s (his, her, their, your [plural]), nuestro/a/s (our), and vuestro/a/s (your, plural). 

Demonstrative

Demonstrative adjectives describe a noun’s positioning in space and/or time. Some common examples are este/esta (this), estos/estas (these), ese/esa/aquel/aquella (that), and esos/esas/aquellos/aquellas (those).

Epithets

Epithets capture the essence of the nouns they describe. The distinction between “epithet” and any old adjective is subject to interpretation; in fact, sometimes an adjective changes its meaning slightly when it gets promoted to the epithet position.

Adjectives as nouns in Spanish

Adjectives in Spanish have a cool property that adjectives in English don’t always have: not only do adjectives describe nouns, they can also function as nouns themselves!

This feature allows you to drop repetitive or meaningless nouns more frequently than you can in English. To use adjectives as nouns, be sure to include the correct article (or possessive or demonstrative adjective) and corresponding adjective with proper agreement. Check out some examples below.

More Spanish learning

This article covered the basics of how to form and use adjectives in Spanish. Now it’s time to put these ideas into practice!

Conversation practice and listening comprehension are great ways of getting more comfortable with concordancia on the fly, and an experienced Spanish tutor can help you identify and fix patterns of mistakes with adjectives. ¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)

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