A question that keeps coming back is: Where do I place the French adjective in a sentence?
Before or after the noun?
People get confused because they learn that, as opposed to their English counterparts, French adjectives must be placed after the noun. So when in English we say an orange car, in French we say une voiture orange.
As a general rule, in English the adjective is placed before the noun whereas in French it is placed after. Easy enough. The trouble comes when students start seeing the opposite! For instance, a beautiful girl = une belle fille. Mmmh why is belle placed before fille? Or a good dog = un bon chien, bon before chien.
Why is that? Is there a rule that could help me understand and remember this? Yes there is, here it is.
Here’s an easy acronym for you to remember B A G S, BAGS.
B stands for Beauty
So as a general rule, adjectives that describe either beauty or ugliness would be placed before the noun. To reuse our previous example:
une belle fille = a beautiful girl = une belle fille
un joli chien = a pretty dog = un joli chien
un vilain garçon = an ugly boy = un vilain garçon
A stands for Age
Again as a general rule, adjectives that describe any quality relating to age, young, old, new, etc. would be placed before the noun.
un jeune garçon = a young boy = un jeune garçon
un vieux bâtiment = an old building = un vieux bâtiment
un nouveau journal = a new newspaper = un nouveau journal
G stands for Good
As a general rule, adjectives that describe the either good or bad quality relating to a person, a thing, or a concept, good, better, bad, terrible, friendly, etc. would be placed before the noun. To reuse our previous example:
un bon chien = a good dog = un bon chien
un mauvais livre = a bad book = un mauvais livre
une meilleure expérience = a better experience = une meilleure expérience
S stands for Size
As a general rule, adjectives that describe the size of someone or something, big, small, fat, tall, etc. would be placed before the noun.
une petite voiture = a small car = une petite voiture
un gros problème = a big problem = un gros problème
une immense connaissance = an immense knowledge
A general rule?
Notice I kept saying “as a general rule”? That’s because there are exceptions. Of course. But it doesn’t matter it’s helpful for you to go from the general rule and then deal with the few exceptions as they come to you one by one.
There are also adjectives expressing other concepts that are placed before the noun. Ordinal adjectives, like first, second, twentieth, last, are part of this category.
La première version est ma préférée = the first version is my favorite = La première version est ma préférée
Marcel Proust est un auteur du vingtième siècle = Marcel Proust is a 20th century author = Marcel Proust est un auteur du vingtième siècle = Marcel Proust est un auteur du vingtième siècle
C’est ton dernier jour de vacances = It’s your last vacation day = C’est ton dernier jour de vacances.
Before or After = Different Meaning
Here’s another fun quirk of the French language for you, for some adjectives, whether they are placed before or after the noun will change their meaning.
ancien placed before a noun means former: c’est mon ancien professeur = he’s my former teacher = c’est mon ancien professeur
ancien placed after a noun means ancient: j’adore les églises anciennes = I love ancient churches = j’adore les églises anciennes
propre placed before a noun means own: j’ai fabriqué cet objet de mes propres mains = I made this object with my own hands = j’ai fabriqué cet objet de mes propres mains
propre placed after a noun means clean: mes mains sont propres = my hands are clean = mes mains sont propres
grand placed before a noun means great: un grand homme = a great man = un grand homme
grand placed after a noun means tall: un homme grand = a tall man = un homme grand
Et voilà! So remember BAGS, beauty, age, good, size, placed before the noun. As well as ordinal adjectives, first, second, third, etc. And also sometimes, depending on where an adjective is placed in a sentence, its meaning could change!
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