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20 Prefixes in Spanish That’ll Help You Understand Hundreds of Words

Learning and memorizing Spanish verb conjugations can be a drag.

On the other hand, without knowing the correct conjugations—and especially those tricky irregular verbs—communicating in Spanish is basically impossible. 

Luckily, there’s a little trick that increases your vocabulary knowledge while cutting your memorization time in half: prefixes.

Read on to familiarize yourself with 20 of the most common Spanish prefixes.


What are Prefixes?

Prefixes are groups of letters added to the beginning of a word to alter, change or qualify its meaning. They provide context or indicate a specific characteristic of the base word. For example (in English) the prefix in the word “unhappy,” “un-” indicates negation, making the word mean “not happy.”

Common prefixes in Spanish include dis– (not), pre– (before) and con– (with). They are essential in forming new words from existing words.

Why Focus on Prefixes in Spanish?

There’s a reason why your grade school language arts teacher spent so much time making sure you understood prefixes. They’re incredibly useful! Prefixes can be great for helping you figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words, both in English and in Spanish.

Take, for example, a Spanish word like componer (to put together, to compose). You might not know what this word means at first glance. But if you know the common verb poner (to put), and you also know that the prefix com means “with” or “together,” it won’t be hard to figure out that componer has to do with putting things together. Learning the Spanish prefixes will help you a million times over when reading and listening to Spanish.

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This article focuses on verbs because prefixes are especially useful when it comes to verbs. One of the most difficult things about Spanish for a non-native speaker is trying to keep all of those different verb conjugations straight.

It doesn’t help that many of the most common Spanish verbs are stem-changing or just flat-out irregular! Prefixes are great because they don’t change the conjugation of the verb, but can completely alter its meaning. So, once you learn the tricky irregular conjugations of the verb decir (to say), you can take advantage of prefixes to learn words like contradecir (to contradict), maldecir (to curse), bendecir (to bless), predecir (to predict) and many others.

If you’re finding these useful, the natural next step is to branch out to suffixes. While we won’t cover that in this post—prefixes only, baby—there’s actually an entire Spanish practice book about building vocabulary with suffixes in the reputable Practice Makes Perfect series

Essential Spanish Prefixes to Know

1. Mal- (bad)

You can put the prefix mal at the beginning of various verbs in order to express that the action is being done poorly, or even that the action itself is morally bad. For example, the word malgastar (to waste) comes from mal (bad) and gastar (spend). To spend something badly is to waste.


2. Ben- (good)

Meaning: good

The opposite of mal is ben. This one’s not hard to remember because it looks and sounds so similar to the Spanish words bien (well) and bueno (good), two basic Spanish words!


3. Des- (un-)

Meaning: un-

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Like the English prefix un-, des implies the action of undoing something, either in a literal or a metaphorical sense. Take, for example, the verb descubrir (to discover). Like in English, it comes from the prefix des plus the verb cubrir (to cover), expressing a metaphorical uncovering of something.

Watch out—the word “uncover,” referring to the literal act of uncovering something, has a different Spanish translation: destapar.


4. Dis- (not)

Meaning: not

Similar to des in sound but not equal in meaning, the pronoun dis helps to express opposites or the concept of not doing something.


5. Pre- (before)

Meaning: before

Like the word prefijo (prefix), this particular prefix refers to things that come before. It’s quite similar to its English equivalent prefix “pre,” as seen in words like “prepare” or “prevent.”

As in English, we can understand the “before” temporally or spatially. For example, the Spanish word presentar (present), can be understood as “to put something before someone else” figuratively.

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6. Con- (with, together)

Meaning: with, together

The Spanish word con by itself means “with,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that the prefix con is used for verbs that have something to do with putting things together or things working together. However, make sure you don’t mix it up with verbs that actually start with the prefix contra, which means “against”—almost the exact opposite!


7. Com- (with, together)

Meaning: with, together

Similar to con, com is also used to talk about things going together or working together.


8. Co- (with, together)

Meaning: with, together

This third and final prefix used to mean “with” or “together” is also represented in a number of useful Spanish verbs, many of which are cognates with their English equivalents.

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9. Ex- (out of)

Meaning: out of

Ex is another prefix that’s quite similar to its English equivalent. Think of words like extract and expose. If you see the prefix ex at the beginning of a word, you can guess that the verb in question has something to do with pulling something out of something else or removing something.


10. Inter- (inside, among, between)

Meaning: inside, among, between

If you’re learning a second language, perhaps you’re already interested in being an international citizen. Verbs that begin with this prefix have to do with actions that involve placing oneself inside, among or between other things.


11. Re- (again)

Meaning: again

If you’ve ever studied the renacimiento (Renaissance) or the Spanish reconquista (re-conquest), then you’re already familiar with this prefix, which means “again.”

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12. Sobre- (over)

Meaning: over

The word sobre has many different meanings in Spanish—depending on context, it can mean “approximately,” “around” or “envelope.” But as a preposition, it frequently means “over” or “above,” and that’s also what it means as a prefix.


13. Sub- (under)

Meaning: under

Sub is the opposite of sobre. Just like the English prefix sub, the Spanish equivalent deals with things that are under. See Spanish words like subterráneo (underground) and subtítulos (subtitles).


14. Contra- (against)

Meaning: against

In Spanish, En contra means “against” or “in disagreement” so it’s not shocking that contra as a prefix means “against.” Its English equivalents are generally “contra” or “counter.”

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15. Uni- (one, whole)

Just like in English, the Spanish prefix uni means “one” or “whole.” (Think: universe, unilateral, united…)


16. Equi- (equal)

Meaning: equal

Think of English words like equivalent, equidistant and even equal, and you won’t forget the meaning of the Spanish prefix equi. Use it in verbs that deal with making things equal or similar.


17. Trans- (across, beyond)

In Spanish, trans- often indicates movement or change from one state to another.

For example, transmitir means to transmit, transformar means to transform and transporte refers to transportation. The prefix trans- is used to convey the idea of crossing or going beyond a particular state or location. It is commonly used in words related to transportation, communication and change.


18. Poli- (many, much)

The Spanish prefix “poli” comes from the Greek word “polys,” which means “many” or “much.”

In Spanish, it often conveys the idea of having many or much of something.

For example, polifacético means versatile or multifaceted and política relates to politics (the affairs of the state or community). The prefix poli- is used to indicate abundance, variety or complexity.


19. Bi- (two, double)

The Spanish prefix “bi” is derived from the Latin word “bi,” which means “two” or “double.”

In Spanish, it often indicates a duality or having two of something. For example, bilingüe means bilingual and bipolar refers to bipolar disorder. Bi- is used to denote a dual or twofold nature of things.


20. Super- (above, beyond)

In Spanish, super- often conveys the idea of being above or beyond something in terms of quality, quantity or degree.

For example, superior means superior or higher and supernatural refers to the supernatural (beyond the laws of nature). Super- is used to indicate a higher level or degree of something.


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This list of prefixes is just the tip of the iceberg. But since these are some of the more common prefixes in Spanish, they make a great starting point.

To review what you’ve learned here (or dive deeper into the topic), consume Spanish-language content wherever you can find it—such as books, subtitled movies and TV shows—and take notes when you see prefixes. 

Remember that although this article focused on verbs, these prefixes are equally valuable for modifying nouns, adjectives and adverbs! Prefixes are a great quick and easy way to enrich your Spanish vocabulary.

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