While the French language is full of exceptions (and a plethora of tenses and moods to choose from), it’s also full of shortcuts.
Learn the building blocks of French sentence structure, and you’re well on your way to becoming the next Stendhal.
Here are some building blocks to start with: French words can be comprised of roots, prefixes and suffixes.
Today, we’re gonna talk about suffixes! I like to think of suffixes as a shortcut to un vocabulaire grandissime (an extremely big vocabulary).
What Are Suffixes and Why Learn French Ones?
- A suffix is an affix (something added on) that comes after the stem of a word. Stems, or root words, are the basis for forming new words. In French, suffixes are added to nouns, verbs or adjectives.
- French suffixes, for the most part, originate from Latin or Greek. The same goes for English suffixes. You’ll therefore notice that, aside from a minor variation in spelling, many French and English suffixes are the same.
- Suffixes are like linguistic time-savers. They allow you to boil down what would otherwise be a multi-word phrase into a single word. For example, it’s much less of a mouthful to say une poissonnerie (a fish market) than un endroit où se trouve du poisson en vente (a place where one finds fish for sale). Did someone just say “shortcut”? On top of that, learning French suffixes allows you to build your vocabulary quickly, which means you’ll be well on your way to fluency.
- Suffixes allow you to become a better vocabulary detective. Indeed, by learning a wide range of suffixes, you’ll be able to decode unfamiliar words much more easily (or at least, determine their parts of speech) when reading. Basically, your reading comprehension and writing will quickly improve once you learn more suffixes.
Now that you’ve been convinced, let’s see the suffixes! I’ve put together a list of common ones that you’re bound to come across no matter where you are in your French learning adventure.
On y va (let’s go)!
12 French Suffixes to Upgrade Your French
This suffix, which derives from the Latin abilis and can only be added to verbal stems (which is to say, verbs minus their -er, -ir or -re endings), denotes the possibility or ability to be done. It’s adjectival, which means that the resultant word is an adjective.
lav- + -able → lavable (washable)
Cette chemise est lavable à l’eau chaude. (This shirt can be washed in hot water.)
Note: Lav- is the verbal stem of the verb laver (to wash).
-age, which originates from the Latin agere (to act) is most commonly used to form nouns which refer to the “action or result of X-ing” or the “state of being a(n) X.” Nouns that end in -age are masculine.
esclave (slave) + -age → esclavage (the state of being a slave, or more succinctly, slavery)
L’esclavage est horrible. (Slavery is horrible.)
This suffix can be added to nominal stems and it can either be used to form nominal and adjectival demonyms, which describe someone or something by their place of origin, or as a diminutive noun. The resulting word can either be a noun or an adjective, and the addition of an e means the noun or adjective is feminine.
A person, place or thing from or in la Jamaïque (Jamaica) is jamaïcain(e) (Jamaican).
Il y a un nouveau restaurant jamaïcain dans le quartier. (There is a new Jamaican restaurant in the neighborhood.)
Note: Jamaïcain can also be spelled jamaïquain, although this spelling tends not to be as popular.
A person, place or thing from la France (France) is français(e) (French).
Sa femme est française. (His wife is French.)
J’ai une voiture française. (I have a French car.)
A person, place or thing from le Danemark (Denmark) is danois(e) (Danish).
A person, place or thing from l’Europe (Europe) is européen(e) (European).
This suffix, derived from the Latin ator (actor), is meant to signify actors or agents. It’s added to verbal stems. The resulting words can be nouns or adjectives. -ateur is used for masculine nouns or adjectives, while -atrice is used for feminine ones.
Dévast- + -ateur → dévastateur (something that devastates or devastating, as in un ouragan dévastateur, or “a devastating hurricane”)
Elle a une maladie dévastatrice. (She has a devastating illness.)
Note: Dévast- is the stem of the verb dévaster (to devastate).
ventil- + -ateur → ventilateur (a fan)
J’ai besoin d’un ventilateur pour cette pièce. (I need a fan for this room.)
Note: Ventil- is the stem of the verb ventiler (to ventilate). In this word, we see the word vent (wind).
This suffix, which is added to nouns, has a diminutive function. -eau is used for masculine nouns and -elle is used for feminine ones.
Un petit lapin (a little rabbit, as in a young one) can be condensed to un lapineau (a little rabbit).
Le lapineau a perdu sa mère. (The young rabbit lost its mother.)
Une petite rue (a little street) can be condensed to une ruelle (a little street or alley).
J’ai entendu un hurlement dans une ruelle. (I heard a scream in an alley.)
As a suffix, the acute accent can perform many roles, such as…
Forming the past participle:
First (and dare I say foremost), this suffix is used to construct the past participle of -er verbs, where -é replaces the -er.
The past participle of manger (to eat) is mangé (ate).
J’ai mangé tard. (I ate late.)
La viande, mangée par les mouches, est dans la poubelle. (The meat, eaten by the flies, is in the trash.)
If the root is a noun, then the suffix -é can be added to produce an adjective that signifies “possessing X” or “resembling X.”
Le sens refers to sense (as in common sense) or reason and so the adjective sensé refers to something or someone reasonable, or possessing sense/reason.
Ses propos sont sensés. (His remarks are reasonable.)
The suffix -é can be added to nouns to denote “the state of X.”
In French, un parent denotes not only a mother or a father, but a relative in general. La parenté refers to kinship, (family) relationship or relatedness.
Quel est ton lien de parenté avec elle ? (What is your relationship to her?)
This multipurpose suffix can be added to nouns or verbs to make new nouns, with different meanings.
“A __ful of something”:
Une poignée (a fistful) derives from un poing (a fist).
J’ai mangé une poignée de dates ce matin. (I ate a fistful of dates this morning.)
Result of an action, purpose:
Une donnée (a piece of data or information) derives from the verb donner (to give).
La société stocke ses données sur un serveur. (The company keeps its data on a server.)
Une entrée (an entrance) derives from the verb entrer (to enter).
L’entrée du bâtiment est ouverte. (The building’s entrance is open.)
Period of time:
Une matinée (the morning hours) derives from le matin (the morning).
J’ai lu toute la matinée. (I read all morning.)
This suffix, which derives from the Latin aria, eria and iria, is added to nominal stems to form nouns that denote “a speciality in X.” In many cases, -erie also denotes “a place that sells X.” The resulting nouns are feminine.
Une poissonnerie (a fish market) is a place that specializes in or sells du poisson (fish).
J’ai acheté ce flet dans une poissonnerie. (I bought this flounder at the fish market.)
Une bijouterie (a jewelry store) is a place that specializes in or sells des bijoux (jewelry).
Jean a acheté un cadeau pour sa femme dans une bijouterie. (Jean bought a present for his wife at a jewelry store.)
This suffix, which is added to nouns, has a diminutive function, making the noun smaller. -et is used for masculine nouns and -ette is used for feminine ones. Think of this suffix as synonymous with “un petit X”(a little X).
Un petit garçon (a little boy) can also be referred to as un garçonnet (a little boy).
Le garçonnet court après le ballon. (The little boy is running after the ball.)
Une petite fille (a little girl) can also be referred to as une fillette (a little girl).
La fillette porte une robe jaune. (The little girl is wearing a yellow dress.)
This suffix, which derives from the Greek ismos and the Latin ismus, is used to refer to doctrines, ideologies or belief systems. It’s added to adjectival stems, which often end in -iste, to form masculine nouns.
Une doctrine nationaliste (a nationalist doctrine) can be condensed to nationalisme (nationalism).
Le nationalisme est en pleine croissance en France. (Nationalism is spreading quickly in France.)
Une doctrine socialiste (a socialist doctrine) can be shortened to socialisme (socialism).
Le socialisme est un système politique et économique. (Socialism is a political and economic system.)
This suffix, which is added to adjectives, has an augmentative function, making the adjective stronger. Think of -issime as synonymous with the adjective très (very) or extrêmement (extremely).
Très grand (very big) can be simply put as grandissime (very big).
La maison du Charles est grandissime. (Charles’ house is very big.)
Très grave (very serious) can be simply put as gravissime (very serious).
La maladie est gravissime. (The illness is very serious.)
This suffix, derived from the Greek ista, is similar to -issime above. While -issime is used to denote a doctrine or a school of thought, -iste refers to nouns that conform to said doctrines or schools of thought.
Someone or something (e.g., a book) that adheres to the doctrine of fascisme (fascism) is fasciste (fascist).
Le gouvernement de Benito Mussolini était fasciste. (Benito Mussolini’s government was fascist.)
Now that you’ve seen some of the more common suffixes, you can take things to the next level. These resources will keep you ahead in the vocabulary game:
- The Francophone sites Orbilat and Études littéraires each offer quick reference guides to an extensive list of suffixes (with examples!).
- Once you’re ready to get your feet wet and really start testing out your knowledge, “French Vocabulary Building with Prefixes and Suffixes” by Eliane Kurbegov is chock-full of vocabulary-building exercises. It comes with a neat flashcard app to boot, so you can practice when you’re on the move!
- FluentU will help you see how native French speakers use these suffixes with authentic videos. These videos also have interactive captions to provide more information about any unfamiliar word.
And that’s just the beginning. Now it’s up to you to stay ahead!