Adjective Placement in French (Part 2) Posted by Elizabeth Schmermund on Dec 12, 2016 in Grammar
Last week, we went over an easy acronym to help you determine where to place an adjective in relation to the noun it is modifying. However, as we know, there are exceptions to grammar rules. And with French adjective order, the rules can get tricky … particularly when certain adjectives change meaning depending on where they are placed in a sentence!
Some adjectives can be placed either before or after a noun. However, their meaning changes based on their positioning. Typically, this follows its own (somewhat breakable) rule: for a more forceful or figurative meaning the adjective should be placed before the noun, while for a more literal meaning, the adjective should be placed after the noun.
Let’s take a look at an example:
The word ancien can mean both “former” or “old/ancient.” If I said, c’est l’ancien footballer, this would mean, “It’s the former football (soccer) player.” However, if I changed the placement of the adjective until after the noun, it would change the meaning of the sentence. C’est le footballer ancien would literally mean, “It’s the old football (soccer) player.
While not entirely clear-cut, you can see that when the adjective–in this case, ancien–precedes the noun, it has a more abstract or comparative meaning. When the adjective follows the noun, its meaning is more literal.
Let’s look at some more examples:
Ce jeune homme est gentil.
Comme il est gentil, cet homme jeune.
In the above example, the adjective jeune precedes the noun for emphasis. In the first example, then, ce jeune homme most likely refers to a teenager, or a young man. In the second example, however, the man is somewhat young but is not as young as if the adjective jeune preceded the noun. We could translate this to mean more of “the younger man” instead of “the teenager” or “the young man.”
As you can see, the meaning in this example does not change as drastically as in the first example. However, it does change the meaning of the sentence, even if subtly. This is the case for many adjectives, including: sale (nasty or dirty), véritable (real or genuine), rare (precious or infrequent/rare), seul (only or alone/lonely), and more adjectives.
How would you think the meaning of the adjectives listed in the paragraph above change depending on their sentence placement? For example, would sale mean “nasty” or “dirty” before/after the noun?