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French Grammar Lesson 5

Where Does the Adjective Go in a French Sentence?

Ah, if languages would just pick a style and stick with it – ! But they don’t, and that’s what makes them so interesting (if infuriating) to study.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that much of the time French adjectives go right after the noun – except when they go before it. For example, if we wanted to say “a black horse” in French, we’d say “un cheval noir.” A horse black. This rule always holds true for adjectives denoting color, and it holds true for most other adjectives too. Putting the adjective after the noun is safe if you don’t know any better.

Some adjectives, though, go before the noun. For example “le petit prince” (the little prince). Or “la jeune fille” (the young girl). In fact, while you’re building basic French skills as you are here, you may get the sense that half of all French adjectives go before the noun and half after.

This isn’t really true. Most French adjectives follow the noun. The ones that precede it are normally very common, simple nouns like “bon” or “bonne” (good), “beau” or “belle” (beautiful), “grand(e)” (big), or “petit(e)” (little). And because these nouns tend to be the ones we learn first, we could reach the erroneous conclusion that French adjectives generally precede the noun as they do in English. Not so.

And one more observation. There are certain French adjectives that can be used either before or after the noun, but the placement of the adjective determines the phrase’s meaning! For instance, before the noun, “méchant” means nasty, in the sense of “a nasty bit of business.” After the noun, it means “naughty” or “badly-behaved.” There aren’t many of these double-ended adjectives, and the nuance is usually easy to comprehend.

Confused yet? Don’t worry – as you get further into your language study, you’ll get the hang of adjective placement, and soon it will be second nature.

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