Paris is a great city for architecture. Walk around and look at magnificent Gothic buildings from the Middle Ages, nineteen-century monuments, modernist high-rises, and everything in between and beyond!
If you can’t take a look by yourself right now, let me take you on a virtual journey in the Ville Lumière myself.
And we’ll use that opportunity to learn more about adjectives in French.
When do you place French adjectives before the noun? What’s a “Haussmanian” building in Paris? When do you place adjectives after the noun? What’s the oldest monument in the city?
C’est parti !
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1) Le Musée du Louvre
Le musée du Louvre is a good window into Parisian architecture. It spans several time periods:
- Des racines antiques (= roots in Antiquity)
- Une forteresse médiévale (= a fortress in the Middle Ages)
- Un palais royal (= a royal palace) during the Renaissance
- Now un musée moderne (= a modern museum) with a striking glass pyramid.
Just like le Louvre, Paris as a whole is a city rich in history and architecture from different eras.
Click on the video above to watch the lesson – with all its images and illustrations!
Parisian architecture is almost as complex as… French grammar! Today we’ll take a special look at les adjectifs, the adjectives, and when to place them before or after the noun.
Rule #1 – Most adjectives come after the noun
Most adjectives are placed after the noun. For instance:
- Des racines antiques
- Une forteresse médiévale
- Un palais royal
- Un musée moderne
That’s our general rule of thumb!
2) Modern buildings
Les hauts gratte-ciels (= high skyscrapers) in Paris mostly stand in the business district of La Défense in the South-West, near la Grande Arche de la Défense.
It’s part of the 70s-80s boom for des nouveaux monuments (= new monuments) in Paris, such as le Centre Pompidou (museum of modern art), or la Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand (= the National Library) with its towers of giant open books.
It’s all contemporary architecture, made with du béton et du verre (= concrete and glass) – it’s massive and ambitious, and we’ll see how it stands the test of time.
Rule #2 – Small adjectives come before the noun
One-syllable adjectives (and a few others) can be placed before a noun.
Some examples of common one-syllable adjectives:
- Jeune (= young) : une jeune fille (= a young girl)
- Vieux / vieille (= old) : un vieux livre (= an old book), une vieille armoire (= an old closet)
- Petit / petite (= small) : un petit moment (= a small moment)
- Grand / grande (= tall, big, large, great) : la Grande Arche de la Défense
Other adjectives that can be placed before a noun:
- Nouveau / nouvelle (= new) : un nouveau monument (= a new monument), une nouvelle chemise (= a new shirt)
- Ancien / Ancienne (= former) : un ancien musée (= a former museum), mon ancienne maison (= my previous house)
These ones can also come after the noun too: compare L’Art Nouveau (= “new art,” in 1900) with La Nouvelle Vague (= the French “New Wave” of cinema in the 60’s).
(We’ll expand on that later in the lesson.)
3) La Belle Époque
You’ll find many signs of La Belle Époque (= “The Beautiful Era”, between 1870 and 1914, an time of optimism before World War I) in l’architecture parisienne (= Parisian architecture) is
- La tour Eiffel (1889)
- La basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre (1870) with ses tours rondes (= its round towers.)
- Buildings in the style Art Nouveau (~1900)
Rule #1.5 : adjectives of color, form, nationality, religion… stay after the noun
Even if they’re small with only one syllable, some adjectives stay after the noun. In particular, adjectives of:
- Color: le ciel bleu (= the blue sky)
- Form: des tours rondes (= round towers)
- Nationality, city, religion: l’architecture parisienne (= Parisian architecture), une femme sikhe (= a Sikh woman)…
4) Les immeubles haussmanniens
Les immeubles haussmanniens (= “Haussmanian” residential buildings) are the kings of Parisian architecture!
They were built between 1853 and 1870, under Napoléon III, the Second French Emperor. The prefect Haussmann was tasked to change the look of Paris, to open its streets to make it more modern, healthier, harder to stage yet another popular revolution, and leave the Empire’s mark on the capital. And it worked!
Nowadays, you can see them everywhere in Paris, these buildings with:
- les longs balcons métalliques (= long balcony in metal)
- les façades sculptées et décorées (= sculpted and ornate façades)
- quelques impressionnantes statues historiques ou mythologiques (= some impressive statues, historical or mythological)
Rule #3 – With two adjectives: they can flank a noun (before and after) – or both come after the noun by using “et,” “ou”…
When you have a noun with two adjectives, they can be placed both after a noun by using words like:
- Et (= and) : Une façade [sculptée] et [décorée]
- Ou (= or) : Une maison [petite] ou [grande] (= a small or big house)
- Mais (= but) : Un repas bon mais cher (= a meal that’s good but expensive)
- Other coordinations, like “voire” (= and even) etc.
When you have a noun with two adjectives, without a coordination, you can place them on each side of the noun:
- Un long balcon métallique (= a long metal balcony.)
When you have more than two adjectives, it can be both:
- Quelques impressionnantes statues historiques ou mythologiques
→ Notice that any loose synonym of “beau” (= pretty, beautiful) such as “magnifique” (= magnificent, wonderful) or even “impressionnantes” (= impressive) can be placed before the noun, even with more than one syllable.
5) Le Siècle des Lumières
The 18th Century is the century of l’Ancien Régime (= former regime, the absolute monarchy of the late Bourbon dynasty) and le Siècle des Lumières (= the Enlightenment.)
We find the style of le néo-classicisme, when people in power enjoyed building new Old-Roman-looking monuments. Such as l’Église de la Madeleine (= The Church of “La Madeleine” in Paris) or le Panthéon (built in 1750-1781.)
Since the French Revolution in 1789, le Panthéon has been a final resting place of honor – a cemetery for the people the Republic wants to celebrate.
At the top of its façade, there’s a famous mention:
Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante.
= To the great men, a grateful fatherland.
** Le truc en plus **
The Panthéon is the final resting place for many great names, like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, inventor Louis Braille, the scientist Marcellin Berthelot and his wife Sophie, the scientists Marie Curie and Pierre Curie…
Now obviously, they didn’t think about the great women, which is a regrettable oversight. Nowadays some women are in le Panthéon, though they’re still under-represented. The latest person to be Pantheonized was Joséphine Baker, in 2022.
Rule #4 : Some adjectives can change meaning, if they come before or after a noun. For the more literal meaning, it’s placed after the noun.
Some adjectives can be placed both before or after a noun. However, their meaning changes depending on their place.
- Un grand homme (= a great man)
- Un homme grand (= a tall man)
→ When it’s placed before the noun, it becomes more “poetic.” It can even take on a different (more “metaphorical”) meaning if possible. Such as:
- Mon ami pauvre = my poor friend (without any money)
- Mon pauvre ami = my poor friend (in a sad situation)
- Ma maison ancienne = my house that is old
- Mon ancienne maison = my former house
That can lead to misunderstandings!
6) The oldest monuments in Paris
Let’s take a trip through les plus vieux monuments de Paris (= the oldest monuments in Paris.)
La majestueuse cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris: majestic cathedral from the Middle Ages, home of Victor Hugo’s fictional Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The cathedral that sadly suffered a fire in 2019 and is now being repaired.
Les arènes de Lutèce: an amphitheater, from back when the city was called Lutèce, under l’Empire romain, the Roman empire.
And the oldest one: L’Obélisque de la Concorde ! Built for an Egyptian temple around 1000 BC, during the Bronze Age, this obelisk was brought to France by Napoléon 1er as part of his campaign in Egypt in 1798-1801.
We’ve reached the deepest history of Paris together; now let’s review our rules on adjectives!
(Really, they’re more like guidelines, like most French grammar rules.)
Rule #1 – Most adjectives come after the noun – especially for color, form or nationality
→ For example: l’Empire romain (= the Roman Empire)
Rule #2 – Small adjectives tend to come before the noun
→ For example: les vieux monuments (= old monuments.)
Rule #3 – With two adjectives: they can come on both sides of the noun, or be placed on the same side with a coordination (et, ou, etc.)
→ For example:
Un vieux monument volé = an old stolen monument
Un monument [vieux] mais [volé] = a monument that’s old but stolen
(We wouldn’t say “un monument vieux volé” !)
Rule #4 – Some adjectives can change meaning, if they come before or after a noun. After is for the more literal meaning.
→ For example:
La cathédrale ancienne= The ancient cathedral
L’ancienne cathédrale = The former cathedral
Extra Rule (#5) – Same rules apply to comparisons, like “le plus [X]”, “le moins [X]” (= the most / the least…)
→ For example:
Le plus vieux monument = the oldest monument
Les monuments les plus triangulaires = the pointiest monuments
Don’t worry too much: That’s a lot of rules, I know! And they don’t cover all the exceptions and undertones that can come when placing your adjectives in French. It might lead to misunderstandings, sometimes! But people will take the time to understand what you mean.
And better yet: you might start speaking French like a poet! Indeed, in French poetry, it’s common to place any adjective before the noun. (It sounds more “poetic” thanks to Rule #4.)
So if you forget the rules and say “une rouge maison” (= a “house red”) or “de triangulaires gateaux” (= triangular cookies), you’ll sound a bit strange for everyday spoken French… but more elegant and sophisticated!
Anyway, just like Paris, French grammar really is a mess with a long history, a natural evolution from the people using, and several rewrites that tried to make it more simple but added even more complexity on top of it.
And that’s why it makes for a fun visit!
Click on any link to keep exploring Paris (and France) with me:
- Paris by Arrondissements: A Guide to the City + Essential Vocabulary
- Le Musée d’Orsay: Learn about French Art, Culture, and Numbers
- The Best French TV Shows to Explore France Like a Local
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video
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