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Some adjectives' meaning vary depending on the position, namely before or after the noun.

Eg: une brave femme means a worthy woman, while une femme brave means a brave woman.

Other examples include bon, cher, seul, etc

I found it quite difficult to remember the variation. Is there a "general rule" here?

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I don't think there's a foolproof rule, but in all the cases I can think about, there's a figurative, non-literal and idiomatic meaning to the order "adjective + noun" whereas "noun + adjective" is the literal meaning.

You can't guess what the idiomatic meaning might be if you don't know it, though.

For example

Un grand homme = a great (significant) man, in which the word "grand" is used figuratively

Un homme grand = a tall man, in which the adjective has a literal meaning, i.e. it means the same as "un homme qui est grand".

More examples here: http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/adjectives_fickle.htm

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  • You might like to point at this list as well, although it really requires a well trained eye to understand all the subtleties of the examples, it is the most complete I know. And some of the examples are quite funny.
    – None
    Aug 20 '16 at 10:00
  • @Laure but the list has no explanation?
    – athos
    Aug 21 '16 at 1:05
  • @athos Depends what you mean with "explanation". That page says: Avant, ils prendront un sens figuré ; après, ils conserveront un sens fort (→ placed before the noun they have a figurative meaning, placed after the noun they keep their primary meaning) which is the same as what qoba says in other words. You did not ask in your question why it is so, you just asked for a general "guideline" to which qoba answered and I confirm their answer is correct (what some grammar books say), although like qoba I wouldn't say it's foolproof.
    – None
    Aug 21 '16 at 6:39
  • @Laure thank you, now I got it.
    – athos
    Aug 21 '16 at 6:53
  • Thanks @Laure, I'll try working the list in — but I want to explain the differences better. It made me realize that in some cases the idiomatic constructions are "determinant + adjective" (eg. le/un seul, le/un dernier) rather than "adjective + noun" as in grand homme.
    – qoba
    Aug 21 '16 at 15:55
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The following can assist.

  1. https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/26351,

  2. https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/1163

  3. Hansen, The structure of modern standard French (2016), pp 191-192.

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