Order of Adjectives in Portuguese and Their Meaning
Word order in Portuguese sucks, you may think.
Well, it does – but only because we think of it as something established arbitrarily.
Subject+Verb+Object order plus phrasal complements appear in that order for a reason, and any shift in that order is significant in that it has meaning and a rhetorical effect.
Of course, we should not be worried about the naming of the parts. It is not an exercise in taxonomy. But we should strive to understand the reasons behind our seemingly arbitrary choices. You will see in the end that they are not arbitrary at all.
In English, one of the most glaringly clear aspects for us foreigners is the adjective placement.
Many of my Brazilian friends, upon learning the words good and book, in trying to convey their excitement about a literary work, end up saying that is a book good. To native speakers, that might sound odd, funny, or even literary. But to us, Brazilians, that makes perfect sense.
In Portuguese, adjectives can be placed either before the noun it refers to or after it. Some of those qualifying words, though, accept only one position. Those that can be placed either before or after a noun are more numerous. They represent a rule rather than an exception. So we will be dealing with them in the next few paragraphs.
Let’s take the words “bom” e “garoto” by way of example.
If you want to say “John is a good boy,” there are two ways of doing so, each one conveying a slightly different shade of meaning.
João é um bom garoto
That sentence means John is a good boy because that is his intrinsic quality. You don’t think John is a good boy only because he behaves like a baroque angel at that moment; you believe John is morally good as if that quality preceded his being.
João é um garoto bom
Now you think John is a good boy, possibly because of his good behavior at that moment. He isn’t essentially a good person.
You may have understood the main point of adjective placement, but having extra examples and discussion has never hurt anyone.
Eu sou um homem simples (I am a simple man, I don’t wear fancy clothes, I like my things simple)
Eu sou um simples homem (I am merely a man, I can’t do much, I am unimportant)
Ana está com um amigo novo (Her friend is young)
Ana está com um novo amigo (it’s a new friend she is with, one that you probably have never met).
Ficou tudo claro? Then, so I can make sure you folks nailed it, tell me in the comments section below what kind of good student you want to be? Um bom aluno / uma boa aluna ou um aluno bom / uma aluna boa?