Italian Language Blog

Adjectives and their position Posted by on Aug 17, 2009 in Grammar

A few weeks ago in my blog Esprimiti – part 1 I wrote: Siamo entusiasti della nostra nuova casa (we are delighted with our new house), which prompted the following question from Vince: ‘nuova casa’.  That’s how we say it in English.  Do Italians now put adjectives in front of nouns with there being no change in meaning?  Is there a rule for when you put an adjective in front of a noun or after a noun?” The answer is Yes! there is a rule but, as is often the case, us native speakers are not really aware of it, we just use adjectives instinctively i.e. we do what ‘sounds right’ to us. Therefore to be able to answer this question properly I had to do a bit of studying myself, and the result is quite interesting.

1) Adjectives normally precede a noun in the following cases:

aggettivi numerali (numerals), e.g. due cappuccini, per favore (two cappuccini, please); l’appartamento è al primo piano (the apartment is on the first floor)

aggettivi possessivi (possessives), e.g. dov’è la tua macchina? (where is your car?)

aggettivi indefiniti (indefinite adjectives), e.g. desidera un altro biscotto? (would you like another biscuit?); c’erano poche persone (there were few people)

aggettivi dimostrativi (demonstratives), e.g. questo libro è interessante (this book is interesting); quel fiore è bellissimo (that flower is beautiful)

aggettivi interrogativi (interrogatives), e.g. quale gusto preferisci? (which flavor do you prefer?)


2) Adjectives normally follow a noun in the following cases:

aggettivi di nazionalità (nationalities), e.g. la lingua italiana è musicale (the Italian language is musical)

aggettivi di colori (colors), e.g. ho comprato un vestito verde (I bought a green dress)

participi passati usati come aggettivi (past participles used as adjectives), e.g. mi piacciono le pere cotte (I like cooked pears); la pasta fatta in casa è più buona (homemade pasta is nicer)

aggettivi preceduti da un avverbio (adjectives preceded by an adverb), e.g. Anna è una studentessa molto diligente (Anna is a very diligent student)

aggettivi alterati (adjectives modified by a suffix), e.g. è una casa carina (it’s a pretty house)


For all the other adjectives, there is a general rule for their position before or after a noun, that is:

when an adjective comes after the noun its position is more emphatic, and the information added by the adjective is fundamental to the understanding of the noun, e.g. le case vecchie del paese sono costruite in sasso (the old houses of the village are built of stone), implying that only the old houses are built of stones, and that there are also some new houses which are not built of stone.

when an adjectives is before the noun, its value is reduced and the information given is extra but not fundamental to the understanding of the noun. So by simply moving the position of the adjective in the following way: le vecchie case del paese sono costruite in sasso changes the meaning to: in the village all the houses are old and built of stone. The adjective vecchie (old), is not an essential piece of information, and could even be left out without changing the main point of the sentence, which is that all the houses in the village are built of stone.  

So to return to the original example: siamo entusiasti della nostra nuova casa (we are delighted with our new house). In this case the fact that the adjective precedes the noun indicates that the newness of the house is just bonus information i.e. we could simply say siamo entusiasti della nostra casa (we are delighted with our house) without changing the main meaning of the sentence. However, if we say siamo entusiasti della nostra casa nuova the implication would be that we are delighted with our new house as opposed to our old house i.e. the newness of the house has now become an essential piece of information.

Finally, there are some cases in which adjectives change meaning according to their position, but I will save that for rainy day!

A presto

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  1. Rick:

    Eccellente! This was a very big help.

  2. Nathan:

    Salve Serena,

    You have a great way of clarifying grammar topics on your blog. When you get a chance would you write something on when one uses the Past Perfect Subjunctive (Congiuntivo Trapassato) versus the Past Subjunctive (Congiuntivo Passato) versus the Imperfect Subjunctive (Congiuntivo Imperfetto)?

    Is it as simple as following the usage of the related Indicative tenses: Trapassato Prossimo; Passato Prossimo; and Imperfetto?


  3. cinzia:

    Oh Yes Please Serena! I second Nathan’s comment. I find it difficult to know when to use Imperfetto Subj. vs. Trapassato Subj. per esempio: Credevo che lui pagasse con la carta di credito. = I thought he would pay with his credit card. (I look at it as a timeline and my thought could me simultaneous with his paying, no?) or is it better to say “I thought he had paid with his credit card”. “Credevo che lui avesse pagato con la carta di credito”? (timeline definitely in the past). In the second sentence he had already paid and in the first sentence he was about to pay, he hadn’t paid yet!! Mamma mia! Che confusione che faccio!!

  4. Edward Ronish:

    Could you talk about the different uses of maybe, perhaps and possibly in Italian. My dictionary says: maybe, perhaps = chissà, forse.
    possibly = forse, può darsi.
    It is the può darsi and chissà that I don’t know.

  5. Svein:

    Adjectives and their position,
    Ciao Serena,

    Sono norvegese e parlo solo un po’ d’italiano. However, I am in the process of learning and I am very interested in the italian grammar.

    I must admit; you are confusing me with Your rules for adjectives. Your no.1 are listing five examples which, to my knowlwdge, are not adjectives at all in the norwegian language (nor in Russian). Are those words really defined as adjectives in italian???

    My rules for preceding and following adjectives in italian are simply:
    1) Main rule is that adjectives follows the noun when it concerns a criterium as nationality, colour, shapes etc.
    Example: Un lavoro interessante, un vestito bianco, uno studente italiano ………

    2) If the adjective is often used and is short, it will precede the noun. Examples are bello, brutto, grande piccolo, giovane, lungo ….
    Example: un piccolo albergo, una grande piscina …….

    But, if you want to describe the adjective more accurate with words like molto, poco, troppo etc, the adjective will then follow the noun.
    Example: un vestito troppo piccolo

    Looking forward to receiving Your comments.

  6. Tina:

    Hi Serena,

    I have just found your webite and ‘Thank you’ for taking the time to explain some key grammar concepts.

    I am finding it very difficult to understand how Italian sentences are formed. I have learnt passato prossimo, imperfetto and some conjunctives but I seem to be using the incorrect tenses when trying to create a sentence. Most of my literature doesn’t give me the English translation so it is difficult to get a hold on the language when the translation isn’t there.

    So thank you for providing this precious resource.


  7. Serena:

    Salve Nathan and Cinzia, Thank you for the compliments. OK, I’m going to write about the subjunctive and the ‘consecutio temporum’ (or timeline) soon. The ‘congiuntivo imperfetto’ is used differently from the ‘indicativo imperfetto’ (the more well known ‘imperfetto’), and as Cinzia said, the choice depends on the timeline.

    A presto!

  8. Serena:

    Salve Edward, ‘Forse’ means ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’, ‘chissa’’ literally means ‘who knows’ (from ‘chi’ – ‘who’, and ‘sa’ – ‘knows’), puo’ darsi means ‘could be’ (from ‘puo’ – it can / could, and ‘darsi’ – ‘be given’, impersonal form of the verb ‘dare’). ‘Forse’ is followed directly by the verb, while ‘chissa’’ is followed by ‘se’ (if) and the verb; ‘puo’ darsi’ is followed by ‘che’ (that) and the subjunctive form. Forse scriverò un blog su questo argomento! (perhaps I’ll write a blog about this topic).


  9. Serena:

    Salve Tina,

    I know it’s very difficult, the construction of sentences in Italian is just so different from English. If you haven’t seen it already, you might like to have a look at this blog:

    My next blog ‘La storia di un’autovelox’ may also be useful to you as I have reproduced the original Italian text along with my translation of it. I will make a point of doing this more frequently in the future because I am aware that a lot of people who have started to get to grips with Italian grammar are still struggling with sentence construction and translation.

    Buona fortuna, Serena

  10. Serena:

    Salve Svein, I’m very interested to hear that the first five examples in my list are not adjectives in Norwegian or Russian. I don’t know anything about these two languages, but I’m absolutely positive about the Italian language: “ numerali”, “possessivi”, “determinativi”, “indefiniti”, and “interrogativi” are all adjectives (or pronouns when not followed by a noun), just as they are in English.

    Your rule no.1 is the same as my rule no.2, which also includes adjectives preceded by an adverb. As for your rule no.2, this is the tricky one! Some of the adjectives you mentioned, i.e. “piccolo”, “grande”, “bello”, “brutto” have a different meaning (either literal or metaphorical) according to their position before or after the noun, but as I said in my article, I’ll write about this in more detail in a future post.

    A presto!

  11. angela:

    wonderful. huge help

  12. Patsy:

    Could you give me any advice on adjective order in the case of multiple adjectives? It doesn’t sound right to just say the adjectives together as you would in English and sounds better if one goes before the verb and one after but I’m not sure why or what the rule is.

  13. jb:

    come si usa la parole “proprio”? sembra che e usato tanto diversi modi. grazie.

  14. Scott Kilner:

    Questo è un blog post interessante? Ovvero un interessante blog post?

  15. Richard:

    Thank you for this very clear exploration of the position of adjectives.

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