Word Structure: Affixes 附加式
Affixed words divide into Prefixes, Infixes, and Suffixes. Chinese has fewer affixes than other languages. Think of these like how we might say “pretty,” “prettier,” “prettiest,” “prettiness.” You could even invent a word called “prettyism” and most people would understand that “-ism” is the suffix referring to the ideology around “pretty.”
Familiarity- Put 老 in front of a surname to form a respectful nickname. Almost like if you said “Brother Wang,” its a term of endearment. Remember, even though “老” can have the meaning of “Old,” when used as a prefix it does not carry this meaning.
Numbers with 老
If you put 老 before a number (e.g., 老二，老三）it is indicating some form of seniority, with number one being 老大(dà “big”), not 老一. So, if there were four children in a family, the first born would be 老大, and the last born would be 老四 (sì- “four”).
小 is used in the same way as 老 in front of a Surname. Although it carries a little less respect than 老, it is still a term of endearment, kind of like saying “Buddy Wang.”
This character pre-fix is used merely to form counting numbers (or ordinal numbers). In the same way that we would change “three” to “third” to indicate that three is part of a sequence, in Chinese, you take 三 and make it 第三 to indicate it is the “third.”
You can also add a measure word (e.g., 个 gè) after the numeral to indicate that its the third “one.”
The first one
The second one
The ten-thousandth one
In the interest of completeness, we’ve included 初, and it is used in front of numbers to indicated the year in elementary school or to show the first ten days of the lunar month. No need to worry about this for now, as these two concepts are unlikely applicable to your life.
When combined with a verb like 爱 (ài- To Love) or 笑 (xiào- To Laugh), it changes the verb to an adjective in the same way that we use “-able” in English.
Edible (吃- “To Eat”)
Dreadful (怕- “To Dread”)
好- hǎo & 难- nán
好 & 难 have opposite meanings, good or easy and hard or difficult respectively. When added in front of a verb like “Look,” “Smell” or “Use,” it turns them into an adjective, indicating the verb is either “easy” or “hard” to do depending on the prefix.
Easy + Look= Pretty
Difficult + Look= Ugly
Good + Smell= Fragrant
Difficult + Smell= Smelly
Easy + Use= Easy to Use
Hard + Use= Hard to Use
This word is a little bit less frequent than prefix or suffix, but you guessed it, an “Infix” goes in the middle of a word to form a new word. Mandarin only has two.
得 de & 不 bu
The structure of these is Verb + 得/不 + Adjective. It refers to the possible actions in the Verb-How structure. For example, the word “听懂” (tīngdǒng) is “Listen” (听) and “Understand” (懂) and means “To understand.” If you add 不 or 得 in between, you are either saying “Listen – Not – Understand” OR “Listen- Obtain -Understand”
When used as a suffix, 儿 takes the tone of the previous character and does not have its own syllable. For example, 这儿 (zhè- this) is not “zhè er,” but rather one syllable “zhèr.”
Remember, when it is referring to the actual noun “Son” (e.g., 儿子 ér zi) then it is 2nd tone, but in that case, it is not an Affix.
Many times, adding the “儿” is merely a dialectical suffix and does not change the meaning of the word, but sometimes it will change the meaning, the following are some examples:
To be angry
When placed after human or pronouns this suffix 们 pluralizes the noun. When used after human nouns, except for pronouns it is only used for two-syllable nouns, as such:
When used after pronouns, one syllable is acceptable:
When you see 学 as a suffix, it is just like “-ology” or “-istry” in English, it is merely referring to the academic discipline that is in front of it.
Transform + -ology= Chemistry
Society + -ology= Sociology
Animal + -ology= Zoology
This is the same as -ist in English; it is merely referring to a person who is an expert in the field listed in front of the 家 suffix.
Create + -ist= Writer
Science + -ist= Scientist
Music + -ist= Musician
This suffix 化 is the same of “-ize” or “-ify” in English in the sense that it turns a noun or adjective into a verb.
Beautiful + -ize= Beautify
Commercial + -ize= Commercialize
Similar + -ize= Assimilate
子 zi & 头 tou
Both of these suffixes do not hold semantic meaning in Chinese anymore. They developed over a long period as Mandarin slowly lost many tonal and consonant distinctions. This change caused the language to have too many homophones, so one of the solutions to this was to add “子” or “头” after many nouns to help distinguish from other homophones.
Both 子 and 头 have the neutral 5th tone when suffixes. When 头 is NOT a suffix, it means “head” and is pronounced with second tone tóu. When 子 is NOT a suffix, it means “Son” or “Child” and is pronounced with third tone zǐ.
There is no shortcut to learning which nouns have 子 or 头，but luckily by following the Mandarin Blueprint Sequence you will come across all the most common ones before finishing the sequence.
When there is a noun that contains 头 or 子 as independent words, it can drop the 头 or 子 when combined with other morphemes. Examples:
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