I may be mistaken, but I think mon ancien professeur means my former teacher, as opposed to mon professeur ancien which means my elderly teacher.

Is this correct? And what if anything is the difference between ma jolie femme and ma femme jolie?

Are there many French adjectives whose meaning changes according to placement before/after the noun?

  • 2
    See Quand peut-on mettre un adjectif avant ou après un nom? for a general overview. The case of joli is not discussed there. The difference in meaning is mostly on a case-by-case basis. Mon professeur ancien would be closer to “my ancient teacher”; it's not a phrase one would commonly hear (“my elderly teacher” would be mon professeur âgé). Feb 26, 2012 at 22:52
  • @Gilles♦: I don't understand. What difference in meaning do you understand between “my ancient teacher” and “my elderly teacher”? Are you saying putting the adjective (atypically) before the noun simply emphasises/amplifies it? If that is the case, wouldn't this mean that the difference between ma jolie femme and ma femme jolie is that the former equates more to my beautiful wife, rather than just my pretty wife? This would imply a generic difference is involved, not just something that has to be seen in a "case-by-case" light. Feb 26, 2012 at 23:02
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers: One would not usually use "ma femme jolie". Personnally, when I read it, it sounds as if you have may wives and you are talking about the one who is pretty, whereas with "ma jolie femme", you only have one wife and she is pretty. So that being said, while most adjectives can be placed anywhere, not everyone will understand them the same way.
    – Aya Reiko
    Feb 28, 2012 at 0:38
  • 1
    @Aya Reiko: Yes - my question here was prompted by comments on this ELU question, where tchrist said the sequence ma femme jolie effectively placed "stress" on jolie. My first interpretation of what that could possibly mean was that you have more than one, same as you. Feb 28, 2012 at 1:55
  • 2
    @AyaReiko: ou qu'elle s'appelle "Jolie".
    – Knu
    Mar 19, 2012 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


Only some adjectives have two senses regarding if they are placed before or after the noun. Like ancien as you stated it, or also grand: un grand homme (a great man) VS un homme grand (a tall man).

Most of them only have one sense though, and are usually placed before of after the noun depending on the adjective (sometimes both is acceptable).

Regarding your particular example now, ma jolie femme is the correct form and you'll quite never read ma femme jolie from a native French, as you'll never find une intelligente femme, which is incorrect, but une femme intelligente.


I agree with Gilles to say the place of the adjective in French is a delicate issue with few general rules.

With “ancien” you have first to see what noun it qualifies. I have to think very hard to imagine cases when, if ever, I'd use “mon professeur ancien”. First never to mean “my elderly teacher”.
We would not use “ancien” to say a person is old.

Un meuble ancien: an old piece of furniture (or an antique).
Une histoire ancienne: an old story.
Une méthode ancienne: an old-fashioned method.

According to context and stretching ideas very far I suppose in “mon professeur ancien” – if ever used – “ancien” could qualify:

  • method of teaching (derogatory)
  • appearance (derogatory from speaker's point of view, “ancien” here not referring to age)
  • the number of years he/she's been teaching in that particular institution we're talking about.

I suppose other uses could be imagined.

In “ma jolie femme”, “jolie” refers to aesthetic canon. But if I say “ma femme jolie”, I don't refer to a certain idea I have of beauty, but I want to say my wife is a sweet or likeable person.

  • If I understand this aright, you're saying any given adjective has both a standard, conventionally understood meaning, and a standard placement (before or after the noun). If it's placed in the "non-standard" position, you probably won't interpret the adjective in its normal sense. But there's no real way to predict how you will interpret it, unless that particular inversion has occurred sufficiently often that many other speakers have "agreed" on what different interpretation they will understand. Feb 27, 2012 at 15:25
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: I wouldn't say that any given adjective has both a conventional meaning and a standard placement. For instance grand can mean tall (literal) or great (figurative), both are conventionally understood (to use your words), see here and meaning depends on placement.
    – None
    Feb 27, 2012 at 16:49
  • @FumbleFingers: Ancien has several conventional meanings, independent of placement. Context tells us the meaning. Jolie has the present common meaning of pretty/beautiful and the slightly out-fashioned meaning of sweet/loveable. The meaning does not come from some sort of agreement between speakers but from context. I expect most French fluent speakers would probably agree on the meaning given a particular context.
    – None
    Feb 27, 2012 at 16:50
  • @FumbleFingers: Further reading in English, although this type of condensed presentation is sometimes oversimplified : french-linguistics.co.uk/grammar/adjectives_position.shtml ; french.about.com/od/grammar/a/adjectives_4.htm
    – None
    Feb 27, 2012 at 16:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.