Italian Language Blog

Mind where you put your adjectives! Posted by on Sep 19, 2009 in Grammar

At the end of my previous blog dealing with  adjectives and their positions I said: “Finally, there are some cases in which adjectives change meaning according to their position, but I will save that for a rainy day!” Well il giorno piovoso (the rainy day) has finally arrived after almost two months of siccità (dryness), so here is that blog! The following examples illustrate how the position of the adjective can change the meaning expressed by the sentence.

The adjectives grande (big), buono/a (good), and povero/a (poor) have a literal meaning when they follow the noun:

È una donna grande – She is a big woman

È un uomo buono – He is a good man

È una donna povera – She is a poor woman (i.e. without money)


However when these same adjectives precede the noun they take on a more metaphoric meaning:

È una gran donna – She is a great woman (N.B. we drop the ‘-de’ from grande for pronunciation reasons)

È un buon uomo – He is a naive man

È una povera donna – She is an unfortunate woman


Here are a few more adjectives that change meaning according to their position:

Certe notizie – some particular pieces of news / notizie certe – definite news

Diversi vestiti – several clothes / vestiti diversi – different clothes

Numerose famiglie – many families / famiglie numerose – big families

È una semplice operazione – it’s just an operation / è un’operazione semplice – it’s an easy operation

Un’unica foto – a single photo / una foto unica – a unique photo

Una vecchia amica – an old friend / un’amica vecchia – an elderly friend


Now have a go at translating the following sentence, paying close attention to the position of the adjectives in italics:

Ieri ho visto un’amica vecchia, che è andata dal dottore per fare un semplice controllo. Finora, quella povera donna non ha ottenuto risultati certi, ma il dottore pensa che si tratti di un caso unico.

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  1. Nathan:

    “Yesterday I saw an elderly friend, who had gone to the doctor to take a simple test. That unfortunate woman still did not get absolute results, but the doctor thinks that it is a unique case.”

  2. Ted Taormina:

    Serena, Thank you so much for the blogs on direct and indirect object pronouns. The books do not come close to explaining like you do. What a great teacher you must be. The same goes for all of your other blogs. Keep them coming for as long as you can. Thanks again, Ted

  3. Vince Mooney:

    Salve Serena:

    Given ‘Diversi vestiti – several clothes’.

    Can this mean ‘several pieces of clothing’? I don’t think we would say ‘several clothes’ in American English. We would say ‘several ties’, ‘several suits’, ‘several dresses’ and ‘there are a lot of clothes on the bed’, however, I can’t remember ever saying: ‘several clothes’. Of course, the Brits may say this all the time. I don’t know.

    I just consider ‘clothes’ to be plural already as in ‘Clothes make the man” and “Take off the clothes you are wearing and put these clothes on.” ‘Clothes’ seems to be a funny word with no singular. Italians can say ‘vestito’ but I don’t think English as a singular ‘clothes’.

    Sometimes I think the best way to learn your own language is to study someone else’s language.


  4. Serena:

    Ciao Vince, Grazie per avermi segnalato lo sbaglio. You’re absolutely right, I should have written ‘several pieces of clothing’ and not ‘several clothes’. My husband, who is English, always edits my posts, and even he missed that one. We tend to communicate in both English and Italian and it sometimes gets really confusing to the point where neither of us can remember the correct construction anymore!
    P.S. I really agree with your final comment, you really can learn so much about your own language through studying another one.

    A presto, serena

  5. Serena:

    Salve Nathan, complimenti per la traduzione!

    A presto,


  6. Serena:

    Salve Ted,
    Thank you very much for your compliments. I’m trying to do my best.



  7. Suzanne:

    Perhaps I am too late to ask a question about an 8 year old post, but I’ll give it a shot! I’m doing some revision on adjectives – thanks for all your helpful posts – and I’m puzzled as to how we get naive man from buon uomo! Also, I seem to remember a film years ago, set on the Amalfi coast, in which the protagonist was referred to as una buona donna, the implication being prostitute, or at least escort. Does that ring true with you?

    • Serena:

      @Suzanne Salve Suzanne!
      As I said at the beginning of my post, there’s a group of adjectives which changes meaning according to their position, and ‘buono’ is one of them. The expression ‘buon uomo’, also written ‘buonuomo’, describes a meek, simple, naive man.
      As for ‘una buona donna’, it’s often used as a euphemism for ‘puttana’. My father used to say: “Quello è un figlio di una buona donna”, which wasn’t a compliment!
      Saluti da Serena

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