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For instance, in English we might say "I liked the first three, but..." etc.

I am interested in whether it is translatable both with a specific noun and without, e.g.:

I liked the first three.

I liked the first three books.

I tried googling it and saw both les trois premières et les premières trois in some examples...is there a difference with the placement, or a rule?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

J'ai aimé les trois premiers livres.
J'ai aimé les trois premiers.

It is not possible to put premiers before trois in these sentences. The number has to come very early in the order of adjectives. Although the number is classified as an adjective, it behaves a lot like a part of the article, and could be an article on its own (j'ai lu trois livres cette semaine).

I can't think of any context where you could say *les premiers trois livres. The only circumstance I can think of where les premiers trois is possible is if the number is part of a continuous unit of measure (all the examples in modern French on the first few pages of Google Books search hits fit this):

Les premiers trois kilomètres furent faciles.
Les premiers trois mois d'abonnement sont à mi-tarif.

Even in these cases, it would be common to say les trois premiers mois, etc. The syntax les premiers trois mois implies that the three months are taken as a single unit. If the subscription is payable monthly, then les trois premiers mois is the only possible word order.

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Ooh, good catch, important details with the measurements part. –  Aerovistae Aug 27 '13 at 23:56
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Les trois premiers livres or les trois premiers is the standard order.

Les premiers trois is odd and unusual, but it might be a shortcut for “le premier groupe de trois”. I guess it can be used orally to avoid ambiguity when the objects are grouped already.

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Tu aurais un contexte où on peut dire « les premiers trois livres » ? (Avec livre = book, pas livre = pound.) Je sèche. –  Gilles Aug 27 '13 at 23:45
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