What do these phrases mean? Why are they different in meaning?

As the members suggested, I add some more details to the question. As textbooks (am the answers) suggest, the positioning of adjective in front of noun in Spanish reflects somewhat judgmental or phraseological meaning.

In this particular case, I suspected, the difference was actually quite rooted and standardized in the common use, as, for example, the texts like this one suggest. El padre bueno y el buen padre.

  • 2
    Welcome to Spanish Language! In order to answer your question we may need some more context. Where did you see those sentences? Could you add complete sentences that use them? Which do you think the differences are? Consider editing your question to add as much information as possible and we will be able to give you better answers. Besides, have you searched the site? Maybe your question is already answered... – Charlie Feb 27 '17 at 9:07
up vote 4 down vote accepted

There is a subtle difference in meaning between buenos padres and padres buenos, which is common to other pairs where the adjective (some adjectives specifically) might come before or after the noun.

  • padres buenos describes parents who are good people (though not necessarily good at raising their children;
  • buenos padres describes people who are good parents (i. e. skilled at parenting).

On the topic of prenominal vs. postnominal adjectives I found this (translated and summarized):

The adjective modifies the noun in two different ways: on the one hand it determines it, i. e. it specifies it by limiting its extension; on the other hand it describes it, i. e. it explains it by adding information to something that is already determined. [Famous philologist Andrés] Bello explains that this logical-semantic difference is expressed in Spanish by means of the position of the adjective with respect to the noun it modifies.

In the phrase un carro viejo we exclude from the concept of "car" all cars which are not old and limit it to those which can be referred to as "old".

By contrast, in the phrase un viejo carro we use the adjective to augment the concept of "car" with the quality of "old". We are in no way delimiting its extension but developing its intension.

In other words, what the speaker does when postponing the adjective is to delimit or specify a referent; while with the preposed adjective s/he explains a referent that is already specified.

So:

  • In padres buenos you first say you're talking about "parents" (which are people) and then specify that they are good people as well.
  • In buenos padres you say these people are not only "parents" but "good parents", that is, good in terms of what "good" means to being a parent.

Bear in mind there are a lot of cases where the prenominal adjective sounds odd, and many others where the difference is unnoticeable. Maybe it's best to think of the adjective+noun pattern as an idiom: where the meaning is distinct enough, you'll learn it as a unit, just by hearing it a lot.

There are two kinds of adjectives: "explicativos" (explanatory) and "especificativos" (restrictive).

The explanatory adjectives tell you the quality of the sustantive. They appear before the sustantive or between commas. The restrictive adjectives refer to a part of the sustantive. They appear after the sustantive without commas. This sounds a little bit difficult, so let see some examples.

Los trabajadores agotados se fueron a casa. - The workers who were tired went home (but not all of them were tired).

Los agotados trabajadores se fueron a casa. / Los trabajadores, agotados, se fueron a casa. - The workers, all of them tired, (all of them) went home.

So, "buenos padres" and "padres buenos" are the same without context, but if you put them in a phrase...

Los padres buenos llevaron a sus hijos al colegio. - The parents who were good took their children to school (but not all of them were good).

Los buenos padres llevaron a sus hijos al colegio. / Los padres, buenos, llevaron a sus hijos al colegio. - The parents, all of them good, took their children to school.

Both phrases means the same, just "good parents".

The slight difference is that in some concrete sentence they can sound strange (even though being gramatically correct). When you use "buenos padres" you are emphasizing "buenos" (good) a little more, and on the other hand, "padres buenos" emphasize "padres" (parents).

I give you some sentences where you can use both of them, indistinctly, with same meaning:

¿Crees que tienes unos buenos padres?

¿Crees que tienes unos padres buenos?

Do you think you have good parents?

Another one

Los padres buenos no necesitan consejos

Los buenos padres no necesitan consejos

Good parents doesn't need advices

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    I think there is some subtlety that makes them a bit different. To me, padres buenos and buenos padres do not have the same meaning. Buenos padres sounds like a statement about their parenting skills; padres buenos is more about their soul: they good people and they happen to be parents. – fedorqui Feb 27 '17 at 11:08

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