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All About Chinese Prefixes and Suffixes

In this article, we are going to take a look at a very practical part of vocabulary-prefixes and suffixes. You might find it a little bit odd because prefixes and suffixes sound like an English concept. However, it does appear in Mandarin Chinese too. As a beginner, you may not pay much attention to it, but as you get further into your studies, you’ll learn that some characters add a specific meaning to certain words. For example, several words have the character 老 at the beginning, and some words have the same character 子 at the end. Yes, those are actually Chinese prefixes and suffixes. Similar to English, prefixes and suffixes not only give you a clue to the meaning of the word but also provide an easy and fast method to expand your vocabulary, not to mention the cultural elements related to them.

The formation of words is strongly linked to culture; it reflects the mindset of Chinese speakers. So here is a guide to several frequently-used prefixes and suffixes to help you explore this part of Chinese. We hope this guide will help your understanding of Chinese words and culture.

Prefixes in Chinese

In Chinese, prefixes are a grammatical element added to the beginning of a word, such as 老,小,阿, 第,and 初. These prefixes must be combined with other characters to form a word and can’t be used alone.

For clarity and convenient reading, a chart of prefixes is provided below.

老 lǎo no meaning 虎 (lǎo hǔ)  tiger / 鼠(lǎo shǔ)mouse / 鹰(lǎo yīnɡ)eagle
Respect 师 (lǎoshī.)  teacher / 板(lǎobǎn)boss, shopkeeper
amity 张啊,好久不见!(Lǎo zhānɡ a, hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn!) Zhang, long time no see!  公(lǎoɡōnɡ)husband / 婆(lǎopó)wife
Seniority 大(lǎo dà)big brother, big cheese / 二(lǎo’èr)the second child, ranking second / 三(lǎo sān)the third child, ranking third
小 xiǎo no meaning 姐(xiǎo jiě)Miss / 心(xiǎo xīn)to be careful / 丑(xiǎo chǒu)Joker, clown / 住(xiǎo zhù)to live / 气(xiǎo qi)to be mean
affection 李,帮我打印一下。(Xiǎo Lǐ, bānɡ wǒ dǎyìn yí xià.)Lee, help me to print it. / 贺啊,回来啦!(Xiǎo Hè ā, huí lái lā!) He, you’re back!
 
阿 ā
affection 四(ā sì)the fourth child, ranking fourth / 六(ā liù)the sixth child, ranking sixth / 王(ā wánɡ)Wang (family name) / 武(ā wǔ)Wu (family name) / 丽(ā lì)li (nickname) / 姨(ā yí)antie, a calling to other woman with similar age as your mother / 婆(ā pó)grandma, a calling to other elder woman
 
第 dì
Ordinal 一( yī)first / 二( èr)second / 十( shí)tenth
 
初 chū
sequence in Chinese lunar time 一(chū yī)first day(lunar year) / 二(chū èr)second day (lunar year) 十(chū shí)tenth day (lunar year)

Prefix in Chinese

老 lǎo

* Original meaning and use:

As an adjective, 老 means old or elder and can be used as a predicate in a sentence or to describe other elements.

e.g.

爸爸妈妈了。(Bàbɑ māmɑ lǎo le.)My parents are old.

人 (lǎo rén) old man

奶奶 (lǎo nǎinɑi) old woman

* As a prefix in Chinese:

老is a dummy prefix. In a word, it either has no meaning or indicates respect, an amiable feeling or  seniority among a group of people.

Rule:

Goes before animal names, people, monosyllabic family names or numbers.

Structure:

老 + animal name/person/monosyllabic family name/number

i. no meaning

虎 (lǎo hǔ)  tiger

鼠(lǎo shǔ)mouse

鹰(lǎo yīnɡ)eagle

ii. respect

师 (lǎoshī.)  teacher

板(lǎobǎn)boss; shopkeeper

iii. amiable feeling

张啊,好久不见!(Lǎo zhānɡ a, hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn!) Zhang, long time no see! 

公(lǎoɡōnɡ)husband

婆(lǎopó)wife

iv. seniority

大(lǎo dà)big brother;big cheese

二(lǎo’èr)the second child;ranking second

三(lǎo sān)the third child; ranking third

小 xiǎo

* Original meaning and use:

As an adjective, 小 means young or small and can be used as a predicate in a sentence or to describe other elements.

e.g.

这件衣服太了。(Zhè jiàn yīfu tài xiǎo le.)This clothes is too small.

朋友 (xiǎo pénɡyou) little boy or girl

孩子 (xiǎo háizi) little child

* As a prefix in Chinese:

小 is also a dummy prefix. In a word, it either shows no meaning or  affection. When indicating affection, it is usually used by a senior towards their subordinates or by an elder towards younger people.

Rule:

Goes before people, adjectives or monosyllabic family names.

Structure:

小 + person/monosyllabic family name/other elements

i. no meaning

姐(xiǎo jiě)Miss

心(xiǎo xīn)to be careful

丑(xiǎo chǒu)Joker; clown

住(xiǎo zhù)to live for a while

气(xiǎo qi)to be mean

ii. affection

李,帮我打印一下。(Xiǎo Lǐ, bānɡ wǒ dǎyìn yí xià.)Lee, help me to print it.

贺啊,回来啦!(Xiǎo Hè ā, huí lái lā!) He, you’re back!

阿 ā

* Original meaning and use:

阿 is usually combined with other elements to form a word. By itself, 阿 doesn’t mean anything.

* As a prefix in Chinese:

As a very common prefix, 阿is usually used as a greeting and indicates affection.

Rule:

Goes before numbers, monosyllabic family names, nicknames or relative nouns.

Structure:

阿 + number/monosyllabic family name/nickname/relative noun

      • affection

四(ā sì)the fourth child;ranking fourth

六(ā liù)the sixth child;ranking sixth

王(ā wánɡ)Wang (family name)

武(ā wǔ)Wu (family name)

丽(ā lì)li (nickname)

姨(ā yí)antie; a calling to other woman with similar age as your mother

婆(ā pó)grandma; a calling to other elder woman

第 dì

* Original meaning and use:

第 is usually combined with other elements to form a word. By itself, 第  doesn’t mean anything.

* As a prefix in Chinese:

As a prefix, 第is usually used to indicate order.

Rule:

Goes before an integer.

Structure:

第 + integer

      • ordinal

一( yī)first

二( èr)second

十( shí)tenth

初 chū

* Original meaning and use:

初 means beginning or start. In modern Chinese, when 初 is used alone, it is usually a part of a fixed expression. Otherwise, it is part of a word.

e.g.

来乍到(chū lái zhà dào)to be new here

他在学级汉语。(Tā zài xué chūjí hànyǔ.)He is learning elementary Chinese.

我最是想去北京的,最后却来了上海。

(Wǒ zuì chū shì xiǎnɡ qù Běijīnɡ de, zuì hòu què lái le Shànɡhǎi.)

At the beginning, I wanted to go to Beijing, however I came to Shanghai at last.

* As a prefix in Chinese:

As a prefix, 初is usually used to indicate sequence in Chinese lunar time.

Rule:

Goes before numbers less than or equal to ten.

Structure:

初 + number(≤10)

      • sequence in Chinese lunar time

一(chū yī)first day(lunar year)

二(chū èr)second day (lunar year)

十(chū shí)tenth day (lunar year)

Suffixes in Chinese

In modern Chinese, there are significantly more suffixes than prefixes, so, in this part, we will go over several important suffixes, such as 子, 儿,生,头,然,者,家,and 员, which will help you express a wide variety of ideas. These suffixes either show people’s affection, distinguish a group of people, or change the part of speech when added after other elements. So, let’s see how they work.

For clarity and convenient reading, a chart of suffixes is provided below.

 
子 zi
nominal suffix (zhuō zi) desk, table / 椅 (yǐ zi) chair / 凳 (dènɡ zi) stool / 杯 (bēi zi) cup 筷 (kuài zi) chopsticks / 本 (běn zi) notebook / 箱 (xiānɡ zi) box / 盒 (hé zi) case, box / 橙 (chénɡ zi) orange / 橘 (jú zi) tangerine / 桃 (táo zi) peach / 儿 (ér zi) sun / 沙 (shā zi) sand / 盖 (gài zi) lid / 傻 (shǎ zi) the fool / 疯 (fēnɡ zi) madman
 
儿 ér
nominal suffix (huā’r) flower / 盆 (pén’r) pot / 棍 (ɡùn’r) stick / 车 (chē’r) car / 事 (shì’r) thing / 女 (nǚ’r) daughter / 画 (huà’r) painting / 卷 (juǎn’r) curve / 盖 (ɡài’r) lid
 
头 tóu
nominal suffix (mù tou) wood / 石 (shí tou) stone / 骨 (ɡǔ tou) bone / 看 (kàn tou) be worthy of watching / 听 (tīnɡ tou) be worthy of listening / 念 (niàn tou) idea, thought / 准 (zhǔn tou) accuracy / 甜 (tián tou) sweet taste, benefit
 
然 rán
indicates a state (hū rán) suddenly / 果 (ɡuǒ rán) sure enough / 恍 (huǎnɡ rán) suddenly / 突 (tū rán) sudden / 显 (xiǎn rán) obvious / 既 (jì rán) now that / 虽 (suī rán) even though
 
者 zhě
people with a certain feature (dúzhě) reader / 作(zuòzhě) author / 学 (xuézhě) scholar / 患(huànzhě) patient / 长 (zhǎnɡzhě) eldership / 伤 (shānɡzhě) the wounded / 笔(bǐzhě) writer
 
家 jiā
people engaged in some field of activity (huàjiā) painter / 科学 (kēxuéjiā) scientist / 天文学 (tiānwénxuéjiā) astronomer / 作 (zuòjiā) writer / 小说 (xiǎoshuōjiā) fictionist / 数学(shùxuéjiā) mathematian
 
员 yuán
people engaged in activity or group (qiúyuán) player / 演 (yǎnyuán) actor / 队 (duìyuán) teammate / 会 (huìyuán) member / 成 (chénɡyuán) member / 团 (tuányuán) group member
 
们 men
indicate plural (women) we, us / 你 (nǐmen) you / 他 (tāmen) they, them / 她 (tāmen) they, them / 它 (tāmen) they, them / 人 (rénmen) people / 歌手 (ɡēshǒumen) singers / 志愿者 (zhìyuànzhěmen) volunteers
 
边 biān
attached to nouns of locality (shànɡbiɑn)upper / 下(xiàbiɑn)lower / 左(zuǒbiɑn)left / 右(yòubiɑn)right / 外(wàibiɑn)outside / 里(lǐbiɑn)inside / 前(qiánbiɑn)front / 后(hòubiɑn)back / 东(dōnɡbiɑn)east / 西(xībiɑn)west / 北(běibiɑn)north 南(nánbiɑn)south

Suffixes in Chinese

子 zi

* Original meaning and use:

In ancient Chinese, 子(zǐ) with third tone is an expression showing respect to honorable people.

e.g.

(Kǒnɡ)Confucius, a Chinese philosopher

(Xún )Xunzi, a Chinese philosopher

(Lǎo )Laozi, a Chinese philosopher

(Mènɡ )Mengzi, a Chinese philosopher

* As a suffix in Chinese:

A very common suffix, 子(zi)pronounced with neutral tone is only a grammatical particle in modern Chinese. It is always used as a nominal suffix, added after another character.

Rule:

Goes after a partial noun, verb, or adjective to make it into a noun

Structure:

Partial noun/verb/adjective + 子

i. noun +子

(zhuō zi) desk; table

(yǐ zi) chair

(dènɡ zi) stool

(bēi zi) cup

(kuài zi) chopsticks

(běn zi) notebook

(xiānɡ zi) box

(hé zi) case; box

(chénɡ zi) orange

(jú zi) tangerine

(táo zi) peach

(ér zi) sun

(shā zi) sand

ii. verb+子

(gài zi) lid

iii. adjective+子

(shǎ zi) the fool

(fēnɡ zi) madman

儿 ér

* Original meaning and use:

儿 originally meant son in Chinese and can be used alone or combined with other words.

e.g.

啊,你终于回来了。(Ér a, nǐ zhōnɡyú huílái le.)Oh my son, you finally back.

孙自有儿孙福。(Ér sūn zì yǒu ér sūn fú.) The children can take care of themselves when they grow up.

女双全 (Ér nǚ shuānɡ quán) with son and daughter

* As a suffix in Chinese:

As a common suffix, 儿(written as ‘r’ in pinyin)is only a grammatical particle. It mainly functions as a nominal suffix added after other characters.

Rule:

Goes after a partial noun or verb to form a noun.

Structure:

nominal morpheme/verbal morpheme + 儿

i. noun+儿

(huā’r) flower

(pén’r) pot

(ɡùn’r) stick

(chē’r) car

(shì’r) thing

(nǚ’r) daughter

ii. verb+儿

(huà’r) painting

(juǎn’r) curve

(ɡài’r) lid

头 tou

* Original meaning and use:

As a noun, 头 (tóu) means head. It can be used alone or combined with other words.

e.g.

你的怎么了?(Nǐ de tóu zěnme le?) What’s wrong with your head?

疼。(Wǒ tóu ténɡ.) I have a headache.

发 (tóufɑ) hair

* As a suffix in Chinese:

As a suffix, 头(tou) is pronounced with neutral tone. The ancient meaning of head has been obscured. It mainly functions as a nominal suffix, added after another character.

Rule:

Goes after a partial noun, verb, or adjective to make it into a noun.

Structure:

Partial noun/verb/adjective + 头

i. noun+头

(mù tou) wood

(shí tou) stone

(ɡǔ tou) bone

ii. verb+头

(kàn tou) be worthy of watching

(tīnɡ tou) be worthy of listening

(niàn tou) idea; thought

iii. adjective+头

(zhǔn tou) accuracy

(tián tou) sweet taste; benefit

然 rán

* Original meaning and use:

然originally functioned as an adjective meaning right or as a pronoun meaning such or this way.

e.g.

不以为 (bù yǐ wéi rán) not to regard it as right

(dānɡ rán) of course

后 (rán hòu) then

* As a suffix in Chinese:

When used as a suffix, the original meaning of 然 doesn’t matter and it is used to describe a kind of state. It’s mainly used after another character to form an adverb, adjective or conjunction.

Rule:

Goes after a character to form an adverb, adjective or conjunction.

Structure:

a character + 然

i. form an adverb

(hū rán) suddenly

(ɡuǒ rán) sure enough

(huǎnɡ rán) suddenly

ii. form an adjective

(tū rán) sudden

(xiǎn rán) obvious

iii. form a conjunction

(jì rán) now that

(suī rán) even though

者 zhě

* Original meaning and use:

In ancient Chinese, 者 was used to refer to people or things with a certain featureafter another element. It is often used in Chinese poems or idioms.

e.g.

如斯夫,不舍昼夜。(Shì zhě rú sī fu, bù shě zhòu yè.)

How it flows on, never creasing, night and day!

知人智,自知明。(Zhī rén zhě zhì, zì zhī zhě mínɡ.)

He who knows others is learned, and he who knows himself is wise.

* As a suffix in Chinese:

When used as a suffix, 者 actually keeps the characteristic of referring to people with a certain feature to some degree but becomes more ambiguous. It is mainly applied as a noun suffix added after another morpheme.

Rule:

Goes after a verb, adjective or part of a noun to make it into a noun.

Structure:

verb/adjective/partial noun + 者

i. verb+者

(dúzhě) reader  

(zuòzhě) author

(xuézhě) scholar

ii. adjective+者

(huànzhě) patient

(zhǎnɡzhě) eldership

(shānɡzhě) the wounded

iii. noun+者

(bǐzhě) writer

家 jiā

* Original meaning and use:

In modern Chinese, 家 means family or home. It can be used alone or combined with other words.

e.g.

这是我。(Zhè shì wǒ jiā.) This is home.

人 (jiā rén) family

庭 (jiā tínɡ) household

* As a suffix in Chinese:

As a nominal suffix, 家 can be put after activities to indicate people engaged in that activity.

Rule:

Goes after an activity.

Structure:

 activity + 家

      • people engaged in some field of activity

(huàjiā) painter

科学 (kēxuéjiā) scientist

天文学 (tiānwénxuéjiā) astronomer

(zuòjiā) writer

小说 (xiǎoshuōjiā) fictionist

数学 (shùxuéjiā) mathematian

员 yuán

* Original meaning and use:

员 refers to people and can be used alone or combined with other words.

e.g.

你是我们队里的一。 (Nǐ shì women duì lǐ de yì yuán.) You are a member of our team.

(rén yuán) personnel

工 (yuánɡōnɡ) staff

(dònɡyuán) call forth

* As a suffix in Chinese:

As a nominal suffix, 员 can be put after an activity or group to indicate people who do that activity or are members of that group.

Rule:

Goes after a character for an activity or group.

Structure:

activity/group + 员

i. people engaged in activity

(qiúyuán) player

(yǎnyuán) actor

ii. people in a group

(duìyuán) teammate

(huìyuán) member

(chénɡyuán) member

(tuányuán) group member

们 men

* Original meaning and use:

们 usually needs to be combined with other elements to form a word. By itself, 们 doesn’t mean anything.

* As a suffix in Chinese:

As a suffix, 们 is mainly put after nouns or pronouns to indicate pluralization.

Rule:

Goes after a noun or pronoun to make it plural.

Structure:

noun/pronoun + 们

      • indicate plural

(wǒmen) we; us

(nǐmen) you

(tāmen) they; them

(tāmen) they; them

(tāmen) they; them

(rénmen) people

歌手 (ɡēshǒumen) singers

志愿者 (zhìyuànzhěmen) volunteers

边 biān

* Original meaning and use:

边 (biān) with first tone refers to the edge, boundary, border or side.

e.g.

缘 (biānyuán) edge

疆 (biānjiānɡ) boundary

界 (biānjiānɡ) border

三角形 (děnɡ biān sānjiǎoxínɡ) equilateral triangle

* As a suffix in Chinese:

边is a suffix attached to nouns that indicate location.

Rule:

Goes after after a location nouns.

Structure:

location noun+边

      • adjunct to location noun

(shànɡbiɑn)upper

(xiàbiɑn) lower

(zuǒbiɑn)left

(yòubiɑn)right

(wàibiɑn)outside

(lǐbiɑn)inside

(qiánbiɑn)front

(hòubiɑn)back

(dōnɡbiɑn)east

西(xībiɑn)west

(běibiɑn)north

(nánbiɑn)south

QIN CHEN

QIN CHEN

Qin Chen focuses on teaching Chinese and language acquisition. She is willing to introduce more about Chinese learning ways and skills. Now, she is working as Mandarin teacher at All Mandarin.

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