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The Meaningful Position of Adjective

  • 1496

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 "a 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:

Sok "Bobo Frut" jabłko-banan-marchewka

Geographical names

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").

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DISCLAIMER

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.

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March 10, 2017

10 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PaganiBoii

Thank you this is very helpful. here's a lingot.

March 10, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/br0d4
Mod
  • 1496

Thank you :)

March 11, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PVLSANS

Lubiłem najwięcej zdanie ""pomarańczowy sok" = "orange-coloured juice" (it may be carrot+banana juice as well)". Serdeczne dzięki i dwoje lingoty!

July 8, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/arminia11_web_de

Good to know at the grocery store, so you can pick a product without feeling ripped off.

June 20, 2018

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/CelioFM

Wonderful! Here is your deserved lingot!

Wspaniale! Oto twój zasłużony lingot!

May 26, 2017

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Thomasco3

What about nationality/citizenship? (na przykład: "On ma polską żonę.") Is there a general guideline for this?

January 22, 2019

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/br0d4
Mod
  • 1496

That is a very interesting question.

When we speak about nationality, intuitively, we could expect that the correct word order would be "On ma żonę polską" - but, surprisingly, it is not. The perfectly correct word order is actually that what you wrote, adjective + noun:

  • On ma polską żonę = He has a Polish wife
  • Ona ma angieslkiego przyjaciela = She has an English friend
  • Dyrektor ma francuską sekretarkę = The Chairman has a French secretary

But, there is a catch. (Almost) nobody says that - it is bookish, so you can find expressions like this in literature, film or sometimes in the radio, but not in everyday expressions. When speaking about a person's nationality, people would use a special structure, with an object that consists of 2 nouns instead of adjective + noun. That is even hard to translate into English, because the object of the phrase are 2 nouns that are linked together, and the nationality always goes the second, which translates to a rather awkward English phrase, e.g.:

  • On ma żonę Polkę = He has a Polish woman as his wife
  • Ona ma przyjaciela Anglika = She has an Englishman as a friend
  • Dyrektor ma sekretarkę Francuzkę = The Chairman has a Frenchwoman as a secretary

The same when we speak about inhabitants of some regions:

  • On ma mamę Kaszubkę i tatę Ślązaka = He has a Cashubian woman as his mother and a Silesian man as his father (I suppose that this English phrase is even more awkward - but in Polish it is just perfectly fine)

It is almos the same when we speak about someone's citizenship (almost, because writing about inhabitants of a city, town or village, we use small caps):

  • On ma żonę warszawiankę = He has a Varsovian woman as his wife

However, there could be theoretically cases when we would use a noun + adjective structure. This would be used in order to mention two persons or groups of persons, that differ by citizenship or nationality. In less surprising occurrences you may omit the second noun.

  • Ona ma przyjaciół angielskich i (przyjaciół) francuskich = She has some English and some French friends
  • On ma żonę warszawską i żonę krakowską = He has a Warsaw wife and a Cracow wife - This is a rather strange phrase to say, therefore we cannot omit the second "żonę". However, if we state explicitly that he has 2 wives, we can omit repetitions:
  • On ma dwie żony: warszawską i krakowską = He has 2 wives, a Warsaw one and a Cracow one - as you see, the 2 adjectives in the Polish phrase can work alone.
January 23, 2019

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/br0d4
Mod
  • 1496

As a second thought, perhaps translating "On ma żonę Polkę" to "He has a Polish woman as his wife" is not correct, because the closest translation of "He has a Polish woman as his wife" into Polish would be "On ma Polkę za żonę" - pay attention to reversed order and the preposition "za". This is also perfectly fine in Polish, and a more versatile structure, because it may be used in many more types of phrases and it allows to add more words to the sentence, eg.:

  • On ma psa za przyjaciela = He has a dog as a friend
  • On ma wielkiego psa za jedynego przyjaciela = He has a big dog as the only friend

The only disadvantage is that this structure sounds overblown or bookish, so again, it is not used often.

So, perhaps we should say, that "On ma żonę Polkę" cannot be accurately translated into English and "He has a Polish wife" is the best choice.

January 23, 2019

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Thomasco3

Thank you for the detailed explanations!

January 24, 2019

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PVLSANS

Warszawiankę*

Wypełnię twój tyłek lingotami, jak na to zasługujesz.

January 23, 2019
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