Duolingo tells me that some adjectives change their meaning depending on if the adjective comes before the noun, or after the noun. When it comes before the noun, the adjective takes a more figurative meaning, and when it comes after the noun, it takes a more literal meaning.

For example, "un grand homme" means "a great man", and "un homme grand" means "a tall man".

My question: which meaning does it take when a pronoun is used and thus there is no "before the noun or after the noun" placement, as in "Il est [adjective]"? For example,

  • "C'est mon ami. Il est grand."
  • 2
    I can’t find confirmation of this, hence the comment, but I think the “before the NOUN = figurative meaning” “rule” means “immediately before the NOUN” (with nothing between them except other adjectives used figuratively & conjunctions connecting them) (‘un grand et brave homme’ would be an example of this exception). Therefore I would take the “grand” in your example, following the noun (ami) as it does, literally (physical size). But even if your example had been “Il est grand, mon ami,” I would still take it literally since “grand” does not come immediately before the noun.
    – Papa Poule
    Aug 12, 2015 at 22:50
  • I don't have a confirmation either, but I think that the place of the adjective is used to remove some ambiguities in some expressions but should not be used as a rule: context matters more. To continue with your example, I would place "grand" before the noun in most cases without necessarily meaning "great" (une grande voiture, une grande ville, un grand chat...) even if it is sometimes very ambiguous (e.g. I would say: "un grand garçon" and not "un garçon grand" for big/tall/great boy). Finally, I would translate your "il est grand" with "he is tall"
    – radouxju
    Aug 13, 2015 at 8:10
  • by the way, for the figurative meaning of "grand", you could use "C'est mon ami.C'est un grand" (or write Grand with a capital letter). Also, "mon grand ami" often means "my good friend"
    – radouxju
    Aug 13, 2015 at 8:18
  • @radouxju thanks for the tip about being able to use "grand" in a way that looks lke a noun, as in "C'est un grand"!
    – silph
    Aug 13, 2015 at 11:24
  • @silph you are welcome. Note that it IS actually a noun in this case and that the interpretation still depends on the context, but it is more likely to be understood as "it is a great person" than if you use "il est grand"
    – radouxju
    Aug 13, 2015 at 12:17

2 Answers 2


This rule only applies to attributive adjectives (adjectifs épithètes), i.e. when they are directly attached to the noun they modify. It does not apply to predicative adjectives (adjectifs attributs du sujet) like your example ("Il" is separated of [adjective] by "est"). In this case, you extract the sense of an adjective with the use of context.

Example with "important": before = large, after = it matters

Un document important (an important document)

Un important document (a large document)

La colonie de fourmis est importante pour la santé de cet écosystème (The ant colony is important for this ecosystem)

La colonie de fourmis est importante et ne cesse de croître (The ant colony is large and keep increasing in size)

This page (in French) will provide numerous examples and some rules.

  • In the case of important position does not seem that important even in the attributive position...
    – GAM PUB
    Aug 14, 2015 at 1:15

Your understanding of the grammatical rule is correct, but in a practical context, it doesn't necessarily apply. Many adjectives nowadays (due to the constant evolution of the French language) can have either meaning when placed after the noun. "Une colonie de fourmis importante" could be important or large depending on context, but "une importante colonie de fourmis" will always mean large. However, if you say "une colonie importante de fourmis" you necessarily mean large, and if you say "une colonie de fourmis importantes" you mean important.

In other words, while the grammatical rule should be applied in writing, it won't necessarily hold true when you're speaking to someone, so you shouldn't blindly follow the rule if the context of the conversation doesn't support it.

Additionally, it's not uncommon in literature and poetry to see adjectives that would normally have a fixed position placed elsewhere, even when they have a single meaning. For instance, "belle" should always be placed before the noun ("une belle langue"), but Yves Duteuil sang "c'est une langue belle".

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