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What are diminutives in Spanish? How to use them?

A man riding a horse in a field of agave plants.

Diminutives are endings (-ito, -illo, -ico) that are added to words to refer to smaller versions of something or to express that something has less intensity. They can be used as a form of endearment or can even have a pejorative tone. Diminutives agree in gender (masculine/feminine) and number (singular/plural) with the words they refer to. Want to know more about these palabrillas (little words)? Let’s get to it!

Table of Contents

How are diminutives used in Spanish?

Diminutive endings can be added to nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. When used with nouns, diminutives can refer to smaller versions of the noun it refers to. For example:

Carlos tiene una casita en la playa.

 Carlos owns a small beach house. 

They may also be used as a form of endearment. For example, the following sentence expresses a form of endearment towards my house. 

Quiero llegar pronto a mi casita.   

 I want to get home soon.

Or to act friendly towards someone:

Por favor tómate este cafecito.   

 Please, drink this coffee.

When used with adjectives, diminutives can make the meaning of such words more polite. 

Esa persona es bajita.

This person is short.

adverbs they enhance or give a more precise meaning.

Mi casa está aquí cerquita

 My house is very close by.

In some cases, diminutives can also be used as a form of sarcasm. For example: to mean the opposite of the size of something.  Luis gave me a big present. When I get home, my roommate expresses:

¡Vaya regalito!   

What a small present! 

IMPORTANT

Mexican Spanish and other varieties in Latin America tend to use diminutives much more due to the influence of Indigenous languages in the area. In spoken interactions, they are considered more polite than their non-diminutive counterparts. For example, when talking about home remedies, the following is a common way of describing the steps to follow: 

Pon un limoncito en un vasito de agua. Tómate el agüita y date un masajito en la garganta.
Squeeze a lemon in a glass of water. Drink the water and give yourself a gentle massage in the throat.   

Giving these instructions without diminutives would sound rather impolite, or it would imply that the speaker doesn’t care much about the person’s well being.  

Check this link for further information on this topic. 

How to form diminutives in Spanish?

As mentioned previously, diminutive endings (-ito, -illo, -ico) can be added to nouns, adjectives, and some adverbs. When added to nouns or adjectives, they agree in number and gender with the noun they refer to. Each diminutive ending has four forms:
Diminutive endingsExamples
-ito, -ita, -itos, -itas
(-cito, -ecito)
niño → niñito, niñita, niñitos, niñitas
child     little child /children
-illo, -illa, -illos, -illas
(-cillo, -ecillo)
travieso → traviesillo, traviesilla, traviesillos, traviesillas
mischievous (as a form of endearment)
-ico, -ica, -icos, -icas
(-cico, -ecico)
libro → librico, libricos
book     little book/s
planta → plantica, planticas
plant        little plant/s
For more on Spanish plurals, click the link!

When added to adverbs, diminutives are invariable, that is, their forms don’t change.  For example, the adverbs apenas (barely) or despacio (slowly) only have one diminutive form:

Apenitas llegué a tiempo.
I barely made it on time.
Apenitasllegué a tiempo.
I barely made it on time.
¡Come más despacito!
Eat more slowly!
¡Come más despacito!
Eat more slowly!
Each ending also has two variants (-c- and -ec-) that are added depending on the ending of the word. Let’s see how these endings and their variants are added to words:
  • For words ending in o ora, simply drop the vowel and add -ito, -ico, or -illo:
    perro (dog) → perrito, perrillo, perrico
  • For words ending in a consonant other than n or r, just add the diminutive ending:
    árbol (tree) → arbolito, arbolillo, arbolico
  • For words ending in r, n, or e, you will need to add a c before the ending to make it flow:  
    avión (plane) → avioncito, avioncillo, avioncico
  • And, for one-syllable words, add ec– before the ending:
    flor (flower) → florecita, florecilla, florecica
Exception!

These are the general rules that are applicable to most words, but of course, there are always exceptions. For instance: nieto (grandson) → nietecito; siesta (nap) → siestecita; nuevo (new) → nuevecito

IMPORTANT
When adding endings, the general Spanish spelling rules come into play:
  • Words ending in –co or –ca will change to –qu– before adding a diminutive: poco (few) → poquito
  • Words ending in –ga, –go or –gua– will change to –gu– or –-, respectively, before adding a diminutive: mago (wizard) → maguito agua (water) → aita
  • Words ending in –z will change to –c– before adding the ending: lápiz (pencil) → lapicito

Diminutive meanings

Now that we know how to form them, let’s see how each diminutive ending is used.

Ending ‘-ito’

This diminutive and its variants (-cito and –ecito) are more common in Latin American Spanish. They are used to refer to something of a smaller size or as a form of endearment when added to nouns. For example, when talking to children:

Amorcito, ¿dónde está tu cochecito?
My love, where is your little car?

TIP Some native speakers use the terms calorcito and friito to refer that the weather is either hot or cold enough. 

Hace calorcito.
It’s a bit warm. 

Hace friito. 
It’s a bit cold.

IMPORTANT

When added to professions ending in -r, these diminutives are used as pejoratives. 

 actor → actorcito, doctor → doctorcit

Ese es un mal actorcito.  That is a bad little actor.

When used with adjectives, this diminutive ending can have several uses:

  • As a polite form, to soften the meaning of words that can be perceived as negative:
    gordito (chubby), tontito (silly), feíto (ugly), pequeñito (tiny).
  • As a form of endearment:
    pobre (poor)
    Pobrecita, está muy enferma.
    Poor little thing, she’s very sick.
    This also applies to some past participles used as adjectives:
    dormido (asleep)
    No despiertes a papá; está dormidito.
    Don’t wake up daddy; he’s sleeping.
  • To highlight the characteristic of the object it refers to:
    Mi coche está nuevecito.
    My car is brand new.
    Mis sábanas están suavecitas.
    My bedsheets are so soft.

Ending ‘-illo’

This diminutive (and its variants –cillo and –ecillo) is also used for smaller size and as a form of endearment. Interestingly, this diminutive can also be used as a form of sarcasm, may have a pejorative use, or can be used to downgrade the importance of something; it depends on the context and intonation of the speaker. Let’s see some examples:

  •  Endearment or affectionate tone:
chico (kid)
Ese chiquillo es mi hijo.
That little boy is my son.
  • To soften a word that might be offensive:

loco (crazy) →
Todos en esta familia estamos un poco loquillos.

Everybody in this family is a little crazy.

  • Used as sarcasm or to refer to an object/person in a pejorative or insulting way:

trabajo (job) 
Tu empleo es un trabajillo que cualquiera puede hacer.

Your job is a job that anybody can do.

abogado (lawyer) →
Es solo un abogadillo.

He is just a bad lawyer.

  • To downgrade the importance of something:

problema (problem) →
Tengo un problemilla.

I have a little problem.

juego (game) → 
No voy a caer en tu jueguillo.
I have a little problem.
IMPORTANT

Not all the words ending in -illo refer to smaller sizes or forms of endearment, some words have their own meaning:

bancobanquillo
bench      stool, dock

Ending ‘-ico’

The forms of -ico are commonly used in the Caribbean varieties and in some parts of Spain. They are also used to refer to a smaller size or as forms of endearment. The -ico endings are mostly used with words that have a –t– in the last syllable.

pregunta (question)  

Tengo una preguntica para ti.

I have a question for you.

libreta (notebook) 

Necesitas una libretica para la clase.

You need a notebook for class. 

⤷Did you know?
  • Costa Rican people are called Ticos and Ticas because of their peculiar use of the diminutive -ico, -ica, -icos, -icas.
  • People in Andalusia, Spain use “illo” or “illa” to refer to a friend or young person as a short form of chiquillo/a (kid, used as “dude”). 

Multiple diminutives

Two diminutives (or more) can be used in a word to highlight smaller size. In order to add this emphasis, multiple -it- can be added before the diminutive itself. For example:

chico (small) →

No verás la mancha porque está chiquitita.

You won’t see the stain, as it is very small.

poco (little) →

Quiero poquitito pastel. 

I want very little cake.

⤷TIP In Mexico, the expressions ahorita and ahoritita are common in spoken Spanish. These expressions don’t have a precise meaning. They may mean “soon,” “very soon,” “right away,” “when I have time,” or in an unknown amount of time.

Ahorita te ayudo. I’ll help you soon.

Ahoritita regreso. I’ll be back very soon.

Less common diminutives

Diminutives ending in -ín, -ete, -uelo are less common, but exist in Spanish.
The diminutive ending -ín is commonly used as a form of endearment. Oftentimes it’s used with words that have a negative connotation or meaning.

chiquito →  chiquitín   
small

chistoso →  chistosín
funny

 

The diminutive ending -ete is commonly used as a pejorative form. The spelling of the word may change as in viejo (old).

viejo →  vejete 
old man 

gordo →  gordete
fat person

The diminutive ending -uelo is the only one in this list that has masculine/feminine and singular/plural forms. It’s commonly used as a form of endearment.

chicochicuelo
boy

Curious to know what endings you can use to make something bigger in Spanish? Don’t miss out on our post on Spanish augmentatives!

Summary

  • Diminutives have multiple forms. The main ones are: -ito, -illo, -ico, and their variants.
    • They can be added to nouns, adjectives, and some adverbs.
    • They agree in gender and number with the noun they modify.
  • Diminutives  -ito, -illo, -ico are mostly used to refer to a smaller size of something, but are used also:
    • as a form of endearment
    • as polite forms, especially when they are used with adjectives
    • to soften the importance of something
    • in some cases to have pejorative or insulting meanings
    • as a form of sarcasm, depending on the tone.

Now that you have read all the uses and forms of diminutives, practice with this exercise!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Meet The Author:
Author-Leticia
Maria Leticia Temoltzin-Espejel
Leticia Temoltzin (Lety) is a linguist and language professor.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Diminutives Table
Diminutives Expressions

Activities:

Diminutives Activity

Activities:

Diminutives Activity

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