Chinese prefixes

Chinese Prefixes, Suffixes, and Infixes: All You Need to Know About Affixes

Word Structure: Affixes 附加式

This is part 6 “Chinese Prefixes, Suffixes and Infixes” of an 8-part series exploring all 7 types of Chinese compound words. Click below for the other parts:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 – Part 6 – Part 7Part 8


Chinese Affixes, Prefixes, Infixes and Suffixes

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.” 

Chinese Prefixes

老- lǎo

Familiarity- Put 老 in front of a surname to form a respectful nickname. Almost like if you said “Brother Wang,” it’s a term of endearment. Remember, even though “老” can have the meaning of “Old,” when used as a Chinese prefix it does not carry this meaning.

老王- lǎowángBrother Wang

老陈- lǎochénBrother Chen

老张- lǎozhāngBrother Zhang

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 firstborn would be 老大, and the last born would be 老四 (sì- “four”). 

小- xiǎo

小 is used in the same way as 老 in front of a Surname. Although it carries a little less respect than the prefix 老, it is still a term of endearment, kind of like saying “Buddy Wang.”

小王 xiǎowángBuddy Wang

小陈 xiǎochénLil’ Chen

小张 xiǎozhāngBuddy Zhang

Chinese Prefix: 第- dì

This Chinese character prefix 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.”



第一万- wànTen-Thousandth

You can also add a measure word (e.g., 个 gè) after the numeral to indicate that it’s the third “one.”

第一个 The first one

第二个 The second one

第一万个 – The ten-thousandth one

Chinese Prefix: 初- chū

In the interest of completeness, we’ve included the prefix 初, and it is used in front of numbers to indicate 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.

可- kě

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.

可爱 kěàiLovable

可笑 kěxiàoLaughable

可吃 kěchīEdible (吃- “To Eat”)

可怕 kěpàDreadful (怕- “To Dread”)

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.

好看- hǎokànEasy + Look= Pretty

难看 nánkànDifficult + Look= Ugly

好闻- hǎowénGood + Smell= Fragrant

难闻 nánwénDifficult + Smell= Smelly

好用- hǎoyòngEasy + Use= Easy to Use

难用 nányòngHard + Use= Hard to Use

Chinese Infixes

Chinese Infixes

This word is a little bit less frequent than the Chinese 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”

听不懂 tīngbudǒng Cannot understand

听得懂 tīngdedǒng Can understand

儿 er

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 meaning, the following are some examples:

这- zhè



那- nà



火- huǒ



这儿- zhèr



那儿- nàr



火儿- huǒr


To be angry

Chinese Suffix: 们 men

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:

朋友们- péngyǒumenFriends

同事们- tóngshìmenColleagues

学生们- xuéshēngmenStudents

When used after pronouns, one syllable is acceptable:

我们- wǒmenUs

你们- nǐmenYou (Plural)

他们- tāmenThem

Chinese Suffix: 学 xué

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.

化学- huàxuéTransform + -ology= Chemistry

社会学- shèhuìxuéSociety + -ology= Sociology

动物学- dòngwùxuéAnimal + -ology= Zoology

家 jiā

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.

作家- zuòjiāCreate + -ist= Writer

科学家- kēxuéjiāScience + -ist= Scientist

音乐家- yīnyuèjiāMusic + -ist= Musician

化 huà

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.

美化- měihuàBeautiful + -ize= Beautify

商业化- shāngyèhuàCommercial + -ize= Commercialize

同化- tónghuàSimilar + -ize= Assimilate

Chinese Suffixes: 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 them 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:

木头 mùtouWood

木桌 mùzhuōWooden Table

木勺 mùsháoWooden Spoon

木板 mùbǎnWooden Board

鞋子 xiéziShoes

皮鞋 píxiéLeather Shoes

布鞋 bùxiéCloth Shoes

拖鞋 tuōxiéSlippers

Chinese Suffixes

And if you want to learn how to produce, understand, and read every Mandarin syllable just like a native speaker in record time go ahead and check out our Pronunciation Mastery Course.