16 Spanish Prefixes That’ll Help You Understand Hundreds of New Spanish 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 some of the most common Spanish prefixes.
- Why Focus on Spanish Prefixes?
- English vs. Spanish Prefixes
- Common Spanish Prefixes to Know
Why Focus on Spanish Prefixes?
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.
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.
English vs. Spanish Prefixes
Since English and Spanish share common roots in Latin, many English and Spanish prefixes are exactly the same. Some examples are dis, pre, con, com, uni, inter, sub and re. See, for example, word pairs like unify and unificar, extract and extraer, and cooperate and cooperar.
However, as any Spanish learner knows all too well, Spanish is rife with false friends. Prefixes are no different! Prefixes are a great shortcut for language learning, but they do also require attention to detail and study time. For example, since the Spanish prefix in exists, you might think the translation of “inequal” is inigual. However, it’s actually desigual. Similarly, since the prefix dis exists in Spanish, you might assume that the translation of “discover” is discubrir. Close, but no cigar—it’s actually descubrir.
So, study well and don’t take prefix translations for granted!
One smart way to keep your Spanish prefixes and their meanings straight is to study them with flashcards. I know, you’re thinking that flashcards are better for whole vocabulary words or phrases, but they work wonders with prefixes as well. If you like to write things out by hand to remember them, study your prefixes on physical flashcards and you’ll get an extra study session in while creating the cards yourself. If you’re more of a digital person, a great app with customizable flashcards—and a complete Spanish learning program rife with cool features—is MosaLingua.
Common Spanish Prefixes to Know
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.
Examples: malpensar (to think badly of), maldecir (to curse, to speak badly of), maltratar (to mistreat), malentender (to misunderstand)
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!
Examples: bendecir (to bless, to speak well of), beneficiar (to benefit)
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.
Examples: Deshacer (to undo), desplegar (to unfold), descuidar (to neglect), desanimar (to discourage), descomponer (to decompose), desaparecer (to disappear)
Similar to des in sound but not equal in meaning, the pronoun dis helps to express opposites or the concept of not doing something.
Examples: discontinuar (discontinue), disculpar (to forgive), disociar (to dissociate), dislocar (to distort)
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.
Examples: predecir (to predict), presuponer (to presume), preparar (to prepare)
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!
Examples: convivir (to live together), contratar (to contract/to hire), convenir (to be convenient), contener (contain)
Meaning: with, together
Similar to con, com is also used to talk about things going together or working together.
Examples: componer (to compose), comparar (to compare), combinar (to combine), compartir (to share)
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.
Examples: colaborar (to collaborate), cooperar (to cooperate), coordinar (to coordinate).
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.
Examples: extraer (to extract), exportar (to export), exprimir (to squeeze out)
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.
Examples: intervenir (to intervene), interactuar (to interact), interpretar (interpret), interponer (to interject)
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.”
Examples: renacer (to be born again), repasar (to review), reunir (to meet, to reunite), reforzar (to reinforce), reiterar (to reiterate), rehacer (to redo), reiniciar (to restart)
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.
Examples: sobrepasar (to overpass), sobresalir (to stand out), sobrevivir (to survive), sobrecargar (to overload), sobrecogerse (to overwhelm)
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).
Examples: subrayar (to underline), subestimar (to underestimate), subtitular (to subtitle), subyacer (to underlie/to be hidden under)
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.”
Examples: contradecir (to contradict), contrarrestar (to counteract, to resist), contraatacar (to counterattack), contraponer (to counter, to be against)
Meaning: one, whole
Just like in English, the Spanish prefix uni means “one” or “whole.” (Think: universe, unilateral, united…)
Examples: unir (to unite, to come together), unificar (to join, to unify), uniformar (to standardize, to make uniform)
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.
Examples: equivaler (to be equal to), equiparar (to equate, to consider equal), equilibrar (to balance), equilibrarse (to be in balance)
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 good 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. The authentic Spanish videos on FluentU naturally include prefixes, since native speakers use them all the time. The clips have been annotated with interactive subtitles so you can spot them, see their definitions on-screen, and add them to your vocabulary lists for later study.
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.