Learning any new language is a true journey and this is no different for Latin American Spanish: some parts will be a walk in the park and others will be like pulling teeth. For today’s leg of that journey, we will be taking you on a high-speed train to the next level of vocabulary, no matter what your current level of Spanish is.
How? By teaching you the most common prefixes and suffixes, which will expand your vocabulary enormously within the time it’ll take you to read this article. Have you buckled up?
Recap: What are prefixes and suffixes?
Prefixes and suffixes are short language components that usually don’t hold any meaning by themselves, but which have an established definition and are therefore used with thousands upon thousands of verbs, nouns or adjectives. Prefixes precede the word and suffixes are placed at the end of the word.
For example, des- is a common prefix in Spanish which often (but not always) corresponds to the English prefix de-, dis- and sometimes un-. Some examples: desinteresado (uninterested), descentralización (decentralization), destilar (to distil) and desbloquear (to unlock).
Both English and Spanish both descend from the great language of Latin, and prefixes and suffixes in both languages are part of the heritage of that common linguistic ancestor. This is why many of the prefixes are used across both languages, carrying the same meaning, for example in the case of the prefixes anti-, pre-, post- and sub-.
Interestingly, there are more differences between English and Spanish suffixes, although some are similar, like the verb suffize -izar and -ize (for example: standardize / estandarizar) and -ismo and -ismo (for example: socialism / socialism).
Therefore, we’ve left out the ones that are so similar you can probably deduce the meaning, and instead selected the most useful Spanish prefixes and suffixes that you might not instantly recognize.
10 Most Useful Spanish Prefixes
Let’s start by focusing on the 10 most useful Spanish prefixes. A couple of them are grouped because they’re basically different spelling for the same prefix. Please note that hyphens are hardly ever used between the prefix and the word it is affixed to. We’ll give you a few examples for each prefix, read them carefully, and don’t forget to do the little exercise at the end of the article to put your new knowledge into practice!
1. sobre-: denotes over, higher than.
Examples: sobrevivir (to survive), sobrepeso (overweight, n), sobresalir (to stand out), sobrevalor (to overvalue).
2. sub-: denotes less, lower than.
Examples: subrayar (to underline), sublingual (under the tongue, adj.), subdesarrollado (underdeveloped, adj.) subestimar (to underestimate).
3. con-/com-/co-: denotes with, together. The reason there are different versions of this prefix is because it depends on which letter the word starts with.
Examples: coproducción (co-production, n.), convivir (to live together), coincidir (to coincide), coautor (co-author, n.de).
4. entre: denotes in the middle, mid-.
Examples: entresemana (in the middle of the week, n..ç), entreabierto (ajar, for a door for example, adj.), entretanto (meanwhile, adv.), entrever (to glimpse).
5. a-: denotes against, the opposite of something, but it’s also often used to turn a noun into a verb.
Examples: aconsejar (to advise), acortar (to make something shorter), aparcar (to park a vehicle), atravesar (to cross), avivar (to intensify).
6. im-/in-: denotes the opposite of the word that follows. The reason there are different versions of this prefix is because it depends on which letter the word starts (if the word starts with b or p, im- is used.).
Examples: imperdible (unmissable, adj.), imprudente (reckless, adj.), inconcebible (inconceivable, adj.), inigualable (unequalled, adj.), incapaz (incapable, adj.).
7. dis-: denotes the reverse of the word that follows.
Examples: disgustar (to upset somebody, to get upset), disculpa (an apology, n.), disparejo (different, adj.), discontinuidad (discontinuity, n).
8. des-: denotes the reverse of the word that follows.
Examples: desafinar (to go out of tune, to be off key), descongelar (to defrost), desestresarse (to destress), desterrar (to uproot?).
9. auto-: denotes self and same.
Examples: autoestima (self-esteem, n.), autoayuda (self-help, n.), automedicarse (to self-medicate), autofinanciación (self-financing, n.).
10. contra-: denotes the opposite of the word that follows. It usually translates to the prefix counter- in English.
Examples: contraproducente (counterproductive), contradecir (to contradict, to disagree with somebody), contraindicado (inadvisable, adj), contrapropuesta (counter-proposal, n.).
10 Most Useful Spanish Suffixes
Let’s start by focusing on the 10 most useful Spanish prefixes. A couple of them are grouped because they’re basically different spelling for the same prefix. Please note that hyphens are hardly ever used between the prefix and the word it is affixed to.
1. -ito/ita: is the most common diminutive, -ito for masculine words and -ita for feminine words. Note that you sometimes even hear -itito/-itita to add extra drama. So if pedacito is the diminutive for pedazo, you can imagine how small of a piece pedacitito represents! Note that there are often changes to the spelling here in order to keep the pronunciation. Culturally speaking, the diminutive is hugely important in Latin America, especially in Andean countries, so make sure to practice it a lot!
Examples: poquito (a little bit) from poco (a bit), tacita (a little cup) from taza (cup), mesita (a little table) from mesa (table), un ratito (a little while) from un rato (a while).
2. -ote/-ota: this suffix is the opposite of the diminutive, known in the world of grammar as augmentative. This means that it says that the object it is being used with is bigger than usual. As with the diminutive, the augmentative is often used with adjectives. You’ll find that the augmentative is more commonly used with some words than with others, the key is to keep an ear out and you’ll start to hear them!
Examples: bocota (big mouth) from boca (mouth), casota (big house) from casa (house), grandote (very big, adj.) from grande (big), amigote (good friend) from amigo (friend).
3. -ería: this suffix has several meanings, not just the most well-known function of turning a noun into the place where that product is sold. For example: zapato (shoe) becomes zapatería (shoe store). It can also mean a group of the noun it’s formed with or related to the noun or verb it’s formed with, as with tontería (foolishness) is derived from tonto (foolish).
Examples: librería (book store or stationery store) from libro (book), panadería (bakery) from pan (bread), cacería (hunt, n.) from cazar (to hunt), ganadería (cattle industry) from ganado (cattle).
4. –on/-ona: this suffix is used in a few different ways: 1) as an augmentative, often with a negative connotation (e.g. un simplón means a simpleton), 2) to form nouns from an action or an event, often indicating something sudden (chapuzón means quick dip in the water), 3) to form adjectives that indicate the lack of the noun used (un pelón means bald man), and 4) to indicate age (una cincuentona is a fifty-something-year-old woman).
Examples: treintona (thirty-something-year-old woman, n.), burlón (mocking, adj. or joker, n.), narigón (large-nosed person, n.), apagón (power cut).
5. -mente: this suffix is generally used to turn an adjective into an adverb (rápido becomes rapidamente), for which we use the suffix -ly in English (quick becomes quickly).
Examples: levemente (lightly), cruelmente (cruelly), mutuamente (mutually), eficazmente (efficiently).
6. -eño/-eña: this suffix means coming from or related to, and is mostly used for adjectives and nouns. Its English counterpart is usually -ian or -an.
Examples: caribeña (Caribbean, adj. or Caribbean female, n.), brasileño (Brazilian, adj. or Brazilian male, n.), ribereño (riverside, adj.), trigueña (olive-skinned, adj, or olive-skinned female, n.).
7. -azo/-aza: this suffix is usually used for two reasons: 1) as an augmentative similar to -ón or -ote or, 2) to form a word that denotes a hit or strike of some kind. Please note that its use as an augmentative is much more common in Latin American Spanish than in Spain.
Examples: relajadazo (super-relaxed), puñetazo (punch), locazo (super-crazy), buenazo (very good).
8. -oso/-osa: this suffix is most commonly used to form an adjective from a noun or verb: apestar means to stink and apestoso means smelly.
Examples: asombroso/a (amazing), espantoso/a (scary), lujoso/a (luxurious), talentoso (talented).
9. -dor/-dora: this suffix is used to form nouns and adjectives from verbs or other nouns. It’s often used to refer to a person’s according to their profession or activity, for example sanador (healer).
Examples: alentador/a (encouraging), encantador(a) (charming), prometedor(a) (promising), tatuador (tattoo-artist).
10. -ero/-era: this suffix is another broad one and can be used in the following ways: 1) to form occupations from a noun (fruta becomes frutero, meaning fruit seller), 2) to form adjectives meaning “related to” (pesquero, related to fishing), 3) to form nouns that refer to the place where to keep the noun it has used, (libro becomes librero, meaning book shelf).
Examples: papelera (waste bin), callejero/a (from the streets), enfermero/a (nurse), cafetalero/a (related to coffee)
Practicing Spanish Prefixes and Suffixes
Time to practice your newly acquired prefixes and suffixes. The first exercise is about prefixes. Select the suffix that goes best with the rest of the word, choosing from the three options offered. You’ll find the answer key at the end of the article.
1. El lupus es una enfermedad autoinmune / entreinmune / disinmune.
2. No tengas miedo de mi perro, es imofensive / aofensivo / inofensivo.
3. El niñito todavía necesita ayuda para contraatar / desatar / disatar sus pasadores.
4. Les presento al señor Miguel Calderón Velasquez, nuestro sobrepresidente / entrepresidente / copresidente.
5. ¡Mi amor, me ascendieron! Ahora soy disdirectora / subdirectora / contradirectora.
6. Uno de los problemas en las guerras es no poder sobrebastecer / abastecer / imbastecer de comida a la población.
7. No hay nada peor que desoír / sobreoír / entreoír parte de un chisme sin escuchar todos los detalles.
8. Uno de sus sueños era un día subvolar / avolar / sobrevolar las líneas de Nazca en el Perú.
9. No te preocupes, ¡el examen es facildor / facilero / facilazo!
10. Las hierbas están allá en la yerbera / yerbota / yerbona.
11. Héctor siempre tiene prisa y hace las cosas apuradeño / apuradamente /apuradero.
12. A mis hijos les encanta las cosas novedotas / noveditas / novedosas.
13. Para arreglar una prenda la llevas a una sastrería / sastraza / sastrona.
14. El arroz costador / costón / costeño es el mejor en mi país.
15. Ya llevo 2 años sin estar en una borrachota / borrachera / borrachomente.
16. ¡Guau! Tu sobrino es bien guapito / guapodor / guapero.
The most important thing to remember is that prefixes are suffixes are two of your most resourceful friends within the world of language. We’re convinced you’ll start recognizing hundreds of new words while reading and listening to Spanish from now on. ¡No te preocupes, solo disfrútalo!