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Quand peut-on mettre un adjectif avant ou après un nom?

I was wondering what is the difference between “un petit garçon” and “un garçon petit”.

un = one
petit = small
parçon = boy

We know the meaning of each individual word, but what about the word order?

The reason is I am learning French and my prof posted this:

En français, les adjectifs s’accordent en genre et en nombre avec le nom qu’ils qualifient.

With 4 examples:

Un petit garçon (m).
Deux petites filles (fpl).
Un chien (m) blanc.
Une fleur (f) blanche.

I guess the general question here is: why is the word order reversed in some cases, but not in others?

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I think your question is fully addressed by this earlier question on the placement of adjectives. If you still have questions after reading that, edit your question and we can reopen it. –  Gilles May 11 '12 at 20:38
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marked as duplicate by Gilles May 11 '12 at 20:37

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The placement is not a very easy topic in French, no matter what grammars would have you believe. If a major collegiate dictionnary-size French Grammar (Grevisse's Le Bon Usage, 14th ed.) needs 10 pages to describe it? It's not simple.

He notes that "are involved centuries of history, frequency, stylistic intentions, rhythmic balancing of the noun phrase, geographical variations..."

However, as it happens, petit is one of a set of fairly ancient, short and mostly common adjectives that are placed overwhelmingly before the noun (the most common exception is if the adjective is the head of an adjective phrase, which is always after the noun no matter the adjective, or changes of meaning, as with bon and grand). Grevisse's list (prob. not 100% complete) is:

petit, moindre, vieux, bon, meilleur, grand, joli, autre, mauvais, pire, jeune, gros, beau, demi, mi, premier, dernier (and all other numerals)

petit has a slight variation of meaning, whereas the placement before the noun is supposedly somewhat hypocoristic or further smaller than after. In practice it is somewhat rare to see petit after the noun in contemporary French (especially spoken french, baring the exceptions that apply to all of the above adjectives too): usually it is replaced by "de petite taille" or a different adjective entirely.

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Petit is one of these adjectives whose meaning changes with the position. –  Stéphane Gimenez May 11 '12 at 21:24
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Your point is...? So does grand, and that one is not listed. The minute and uncommon distinction changes nothing to the point that in common use, petit will be considerably more frequent before than after the noun it qualifies. –  Circeus May 11 '12 at 21:46
    
My point is that the question is specifically about petit before the noun and after… –  Stéphane Gimenez May 11 '12 at 23:36
    
It seemed to me OP changed his mind soome point along the way ("why are the word order reversed for some, but not for others?"), but I'll cover what little difference on might see if one squinted really hard. –  Circeus May 12 '12 at 0:48
    
I did not know that petit was a special word. As a new learner. I am more used to the ordering of "Un chien blanc" rather than "Un petit garçon". Now it makes sense. –  Bill May 12 '12 at 1:03
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