The Meaningful Position of Adjective
There are many doubts about the correct position of an Adjective describing a Noun in Polish. Here I try to explain the rules of proper word order regarding that topic.
The basic rule
An adjective placed BEFORE noun serves to describe a nondurable, interim or less important property of an object.
An adjective placed AFTER the noun is used do describe a permanent or important property of an object, or one serving for its classification.
For example "biały niedźwiedź" ("white bear") - a bear that is white, but it may be an albino grizzly, a teddy-bear made of white cloth, or even a black bear that is covered with snow or flour, or has its fur whitened. In the contrary, "niedźwiedź biały" is a nick-name for polar bear, "niedźwiedź polarny" - a species of bear.
If you say "attaché kulturalny" it means "cultural attaché". But if you say "kulturalny attaché", it means "an attaché (an employee of an embassy), who is by the way a cultural person".
If you say "drzewa kwitnące" it means "flowering trees" (trees that have flowers at some point of their vegetative cycle). In the contrary, "kwitnące drzewa" means "trees in blossom" - ones, that are blossoming now.
You would say "brązowe buty" ("brown shoes") - because someone can use black or red dye to paint them. But you would say "buty skórzane" ("leather shoes"), because they are made of leather and nothing can change it.
Saying "patelnia metalowa" ("metal pan") would be correct, if you want to distinguish it from, say, "patelnia żeliwna" ("cast-iron pan") or "patelnia teflonowa" ("teflon coated pan"). However, if you speak just about one pan, and you want only to describe it as made of metal and not coated with teflon of ceramic layer, you would rather say "metalowa patelnia"
The last one is a sort of joke, but that's an answer I've actually seen on Duolingo: "wojenna marynarka" means "war jacket" - I do not know what this might be, but that's what it says. The correct word order is "marynarka wojenna" ("the navy").
Nouns described by more than 1 adjective
Things get trickier, if there are many adjectives for one noun:
If there are several properties of an object, the one that is the most important or is serving for its classification is put after the noun.
If none of them is serving for its classification or they are equally unimportant and are used for nothing more than just description, they are placed before the noun. Their sequence does not really matter, although the last one (closest to the noun) tends to be considered as a bit more important.
If there are several important properties, they can be all placed after the noun, and the first one is the most important - exactly as in Latin: "Canis lupus familiaris" is "domestic dog", which is a subspecies of wolf "Canis lupus".
For example, if you do not care what the shoes are made from, you may say "brązowe skórzane buty" ("brown leather shoes"). But if you are in a shoe store, you will most probably find labels like "brązowe buty skórzane", because the fact that some shoes are made of leather is more important than their colour.
If there was a subspecies of polar bear, that lives in Greenland, we could call it "niedźwiedź polarny grenlandzki" ("greenland polar bear"). But, as there are no subspecies of polar bear, and these living in Greenland are the same as those living in Svalbard or Alaska, we would rather call one "grenlandzki niedźwiedź polarny".
Side notes on specific cases
Meals and drinks
"Sok jabłkowy" is the most correct translation of "apple juice", because the juice is made of apples and nothing can change it. It is not totally wrong to say "jabłkowy sok", but it sounds strange and makes the type of juice unimportant. As a general rule, it is way better to place the name of the main ingredient of a drink or dish after the noun. And in some cases putting it before the noun may be just wrong, e.g. "sok pomarańczowy" = "orange juice", while "pomarańczowy sok" = "orange-coloured juice" (it may be carrot+banana juice as well), as the one below:
Typical order is "noun + adjective" - samples: "Pojezierze Kaszubskie" ("Cashubian Lake District") , "Góry Stołowe" ("Table Mountains"). In some cases, however, there are customary names with order "adjective + noun", that were approved as official names - sample: "Kasprowy Wierch" ("Kasper's Summit").
I am not a linguist, but an engineer who loves his mother tongue. If there is something missing above, something is wrong or unclear, please do not hesitate to suggest corrections.
You may also want to check:
- Conjugation of Verbs in Polish
- Aspect of Verbs in Polish, Verbs of Singular, Multiple and Completed actions
- What is Genitive Case Useful For
- The Mysterious Pronouns swój, swoja, swoje
- Translating "and" into Polish explained
- The verbs znać, wiedzieć and umieć
- English "that" is sometimes Polish ten, sometimes tamten
- The versatile word to
Lubiłem najwięcej zdanie ""pomarańczowy sok" = "orange-coloured juice" (it may be carrot+banana juice as well)". Serdeczne dzięki i dwoje lingoty!
Good to know at the grocery store, so you can pick a product without feeling ripped off.